Against the wishes of Israel, the Greek Orthodox Church has come under the leadership of a pro-Palestinian patriarch, Irineos I, a 62-year-old bishop.
With his appointment, Irineos becomes one of the most powerful Christian leaders in Israel, head of the church that is guardian of most of the holy sites. The Greek Orthodox Church is also the biggest landowner in the Holy Land, with holdings stretching from Jerusalem to the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The government of Israel reportedly fears land disputes when long-term leases of the land-rich church expire.
Irineos was elected in August, eight months after the death of the previous patriarch, Diodoros I. He has a long association with the Holy Land, having arrived in Jerusalem in 1953 and graduating from the church’s theological seminary in 1963. He was also the Jerusalem Patriarchate’s representative in Greece for many years.
Israel had for four months tried to block Irineos, who is pro-Palestinian, and four other candidates from the ballot. Under a sixteenth century law, the government of the Holy Land has the right to approve or disqualify candidates for the office of the patriarch.
Jordan and the Palestinian Authority approved the list of eight candidates in its entirety. Israel’s rejection of five was later overturned by the Supreme Court of Israel.
Rabbi David Rosen, a leading Israeli inter-faith activist, said the election was a great disappointment for the Israeli government.
“Irineos is seen as less amenable and less willing (than other nominees) to kow-tow to Israeli interests,” said Rabbi Rosen.
In an official statement, the Greek Orthodox Church said it would ask Jordan and the Palestinian Authority for the approval of their new patriarch but did not mention Israel.
Under the previous patriarch, Israel bought and leased significant areas of land from the Greek Orthodox Church, including affluent neighbourhoods of the city and the land where the official residences of the Israeli president and prime minister now stand.