The Palestinianization of the church

By Moshe Elad


Iyad 7, 5765

Greek Orthodox Patriarch Irineos, "suspected" by the Palestinian Authority of leasing church lands to Israelis in the Jaffa Gate area, is going to be deposed through a religious putsch initiated by a group of priests led by Atallah Hanna, a Palestinian.

The decision to conduct the putsch was made in the wake of an early April conference attended by Arab Israelis and Palestinians in Nazareth. Among others, Azmi Bishara, Mohammad Barakeh and Sheikh Kamal Khatib attended the conference and called for the removal of Irineos. Hanna called him "an Israeli agent who should be removed and put on trial."

Irineos did what was done by his predecessors - Deodorus, Benedictus and Timotheus. The Greek Orthodox Church, the largest and richest of the Christian churches in our region, owning properties valued in the tens of millions of dollars, has leased and sold quite a bit of property to Israelis since 1948. Among those properties are valuable real estate like Saint Simon in Jerusalem, a large part of the Katamonim, Liberty Bell Park and the apartment houses and hotels around it, parts of Mishkenot Yamin Moshe, land in Caesarea, land around St. George's Church in Lod, land in Nazareth, Haifa and along the banks of the Kinneret. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis live on these properties, which were leased for 99 years.

That is why the PLO, ever since it was established, has regarded the intimate relationship between Israel and the heads of the Greek Orthodox Church as a target for disruption. And since the establishment of the Palestinian Authority a decade ago, the PA has made efforts to penetrate the ranks of the church in order to prevent the transfer of property to Israeli hands.

Yasser Arafat and his people exploited the longstanding socioeconomic tensions inside the church to foment turmoil among believers, clergy and church leaders in an effort to remove the Greek clergy from positions that enabled them to make decisions about selling land to Israelis. As opposed to the other two churches, the Latin (Catholic) and Greek Catholic, where Palestinians hold senior positions in the clergy, the senior clergy in the Greek Orthodox Church is comprised entirely of Greeks. The frustration resulting from the lack of Palestinian representation in the senior hierarchy compounds the bitterness of believers who do not share in the church's great wealth.

The Irineos case is evidence of the PLO's success at enlisting even Palestinian churches in the cause of the PLO's nationalist goals. Thanks to this "theological Tanzim," the Christian churches in our region are going through a process of Arabization, localization and Palestinianization. Through "reeducation," they are changing from churches with a universal character to churches with a local Arab character, meaning from religious institutions that are supposed to preach reconciliation and peace to institutions that have nationalist, pro-Palestinian positions. Under pressure from the PLO, the PA and certainly Hamas, Palestinian nationalism is being turned into the common denominator between Christian and non-Christian Palestinians.

If Irineos is ultimately deposed from his role, the PA can chalk up a great achievement in the longstanding conflict over the sale of property in the Land of Israel to Jews. It will have managed to turn a 100-year-old religious-social-economic struggle into a Palestinian struggle against Israel. What began in 1908 as a struggle to improve the socioeconomic standing of the Christian Orthodox in the Land of Israel, under the leadership of the Palestinian author Khalil El Sakakini, will have been turned in 2005 into a struggle by Mahmoud Abbas and the PA, via a "Christian theological Tanzim," to end Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel.

The writer is a reserve colonel and Orientalist who studies Palestinian society.