Greek Patriarchate in trouble over shady land deal

By Danny Rubinstein

Haaretz

Adar2 12, 5765

Last Friday evening Jerusalem's Greek Orthodox patriarch issued an urgent press release: "In light of the media reports regarding the sale of the Patriarchate's assets in Omar Ibn Al-Khattab Square in Jerusalem," read the statement, "I, Irineos I, patriarch of the Holy City, rigorously and absolutely deny, personally or in the capacity of my position, any connection with this fictitious transaction, about which we so far have no knowledge."

Irineos went on to say that he will sue anyone who claims otherwise, and that only the supreme body of the Patriarchate, the Holy Synod, is authorized to sell church assets.

This news release came in response to a main headline in Friday's edition of Maariv, which said that two groups of Jewish investors from abroad had purchased church assets in the Jaffa Gate plaza (Omar Ibn Al-Khattab Square), including the two long-standing Petra and Imperial hotels and a few stores.

According to the Maariv report, the church assets were sold by a young Greek named Nicholas Papadimas, who had received a power of attorney for this purpose. Representatives of the Patriarchate explained last weekend that Papadimas received a power of attorney to rent the church's properties, but not to sell them, so the sale, if there even was one, is not valid.

The nature of the transaction concerning the church's assets near Jaffa Gate is not clear, but one thing that is certain is that the report caused quite a stir in the Palestinian Authority, in Jerusalem's Christian community, in Jordan and even in Greece. Irineos' strident denial has not helped him.

Ever since the news item appeared five days ago, PA government and parliamentary committees have been investigating the affair. The Jordanian government has also asked to be included in the probe, and the Greek Foreign Ministry sent a special delegation to Israel, which spent the entire day yesterday in a series of meetings with Irineos and his officials.

"I will cooperate with any inquiry," said Irineos, while the Greek Foreign Ministry has issued an announcement that according to the information in its possession, "if any deal was transacted with those assets, it has no validity as it was conducted in violation of church laws and without the knowledge of the Holy Synod."

A very sharp response to the reports also came from Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia.

"This is a most dangerous affair," said Qureia, who in recent days has reiterated his demand to do everything to cancel the sale of the properties. "Israel is mistaken if she thinks she can change the Arab and Christian character of the Holy City by such measures."

Qureia lambasted all the activities aimed at "Judaizing Jerusalem" and the construction of the "racist separation wall" around it, which he feels is designed to oust all the Arabs from the city.

The plaza of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, adjacent to the Patriarchate, has been the site since Sunday of a series of demonstrations by members of the Christian Arab community, organized by the Christian Coalition action committee. Committee leaders have repeatedly announced that they will not rest or be silent until Patriarch Irineos is unseated. The committee, headed by Marwan Toubasi, Imad Awad and Dimitri Diliani, is raising the familiar demand to transfer the Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem from the Greek priests to the Arab priests, claiming that "the Greek Patriarchate has become a branch of the Jewish Agency."

Most of the Christian churches in the Holy Land have undergone a process of Arabization in recent years, with local Arab clergy replacing foreign priests. Only the Orthodox Patriarchate continues to be controlled with a heavy hand by the Greeks, while the Arab priests ask rhetorically, "Did you bring the church lands with you on ships from Greece? These are the lands and the homes of our forefathers."

The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate is the oldest and richest in Israel. It owns extensive properties in every corner of Israel, in the neighboring countries and overseas, including in Greece. It is a kind of miniature kingdom controlled by the patriarch, above whom there is no higher authority. Only a few restrictions are placed on him by the 17 Greek priests, members of the Holy Synod, and the patriarch is effectively an omnipotent ruler concerning the church assets.

For years there have been news reports of corruption within the church and the involvement of powerful organizations in the fate of the Patriarchate's assets. Foreign governments, contractors and various intelligence services, tycoons and oligarchs meddle in the affairs of the church and its assets. Dozens of attorneys, both Israeli and foreign, work for the church, which is rife with power struggles and a strong undercurrent of chaos.

The current wave of scandals in the Patriarchate began in 2000, after the death of the previous Patriarch, Diadoros. Three senior priests waged a fierce campaign for the position of patriarch, who is elected by representatives of the church institutions. The election campaign was accompanied by threats, pressure, forged documents and worse. Metropolitan Irineos, who was finally chosen, was assisted in his campaign by a Greek citizen named Apostolos Vavilis, who later turned out to be a con artist with several identities and who had served time in prison for drug trafficking.

Vavilis, who even now is a fugitive wanted by Interpol, has been at the eye of the huge political storm in Greece in recent weeks, after it turned out he had connections with Archbishop Christodoulos, head of the Orthodox Church in Greece and one of the most influential people in that country. Christodoulos apparently sent Vavilis to Jerusalem to help Irineos' election campaign.

The Greek media have been having a media fest with the story, intimating that Vavilis, who was married to an Israeli, might be a Mossad agent, and that he had dealings with the Israeli Defense Ministry and even sold Israeli military equipment to the Greek police.

After Irineos was elected patriarch in August 2001, he distanced himself from Vavilis and shortly thereafter hired a young Greek, namely Papadimas, who was living in Tel Aviv. Papadimas became Irineos' confidante in all matters concerning the Patriarchate's properties and finances. Three weeks ago Papadimas suddenly disappeared, along with his Israeli wife and their infant son.

At first the Patriarchate claimed that he had stolen millions of dollars. Then it turned out that he had not fled as a thief, but rather because he had become a victim of the squabbles within the Patriarchate and feared someone would harm him and his family.

Either way, Papadimas has been in hiding for the past few weeks, and is now suspected of being the man who sold the hotels and stores at Jaffa gate on behalf of Irineos to a group of Jews from abroad. Irineos is now a victim of the whole affair, and it is doubtful whether he will be able to recover from this scandal, as pressure increases for his ouster.

Just a few months ago, Irineos complained to the police that someone was trying to murder him. The police arrested a suspect, but he was released when the allegations against him were proven groundless.

Now Irineos will have to face extensive inquiries. The big winners now are his opponents, priests within the Patriarchate, who want to replace him. They seem to be close to their goal.