For whom the bells toll

Lily Galili

Haaretz

Sivan 17, 5765

When he first came to the Holy Land at the age of 13, he was told that because of the holiness of the land, the devil doesn't walk on the ground, but instead moves from place to place atop people's shoulders. Fifty-two years later, Greek Orthodox Patriarch Irineos says that he finally realizes the deep meaning of that saying. Now, he says, he sees the devil hopping on people's shoulders with his own eyes. He also talks about "a person with the ego of Lucifer," and about God who is putting him to the test. "Lucifer" in this case is Metropolitan Cornelius, who was appointed to take the patriarch's place. The test he is referring to is to survive this difficult period and maintain his seat. "Jerusalem patriarchs die in their seats," Irineos defiantly exclaims. When he appeared before his senior colleagues in the church, he likened his own suffering to that of Jesus bearing the cross.

This reporter's conversation with Irineos took place this week at his private residence within the compound of the Greek Orthodox patriarchate in Jerusalem's Old City. Two days prior to our meeting, the following occurred: The patriarch, who holds the highest rank in the Greek Orthodox Church, was demoted to the rank of "simple monk." Even if the proceeding by which the decision was made didn't precisely follow canonical law, there is no greater humiliation. Two weeks before that, at a convention of Orthodox Church leaders in Istanbul, a majority of the attendees called for Irineos' resignation and even decided to erase his name from the prayer books.

Every day, Orthodox patriarchs around the world say a prayer for each other's well-being, on behalf of a spiritual community that transcends borders. Since the gathering in Istanbul, no prayer has been recited for Irineos' well-being. And he could actually use such prayers more than ever right now. An uproar has surrounded him ever since a scandal erupted over the claim that he was involved in a real estate deal in which he supposedly leased or sold to extreme right-wing elements in Israel two hotels and businesses near Jaffa Gate in the Old City. Irineos denies that there was any such deal and disavows any involvement. He says he is an innocent victim of "the rebels" within his patriarchate, who didn't want him from the beginning. Whatever the case, he is caught in an odd situation. For a long time, Israel withheld its approval for his appointment as patriarch, for one thing because of charges that he was anti-Semitic and pro-Palestinian. Within six months of his appointment being officially confirmed, he has gone from being a "trouble-maker to Israel" to a Yehoshua Henkin-like redeemer of the land for Jews. Now that the Arab world and the Orthodox Church are against him, the Jewish state is suddenly his one hope of sanctuary.

Danger warning

In his black monk's robes, Irineos looks nervous and tense. Without the spectacular head-covering that the patriarchs wear, which seems to endow them with physical strength, he also looks more vulnerable. And it's no wonder: He feels that there is a real threat to his life. Last weekend, the door of his residence was locked and two Israeli policemen were stationed outside to guard it. Additional armed police were scattered about the patriarchate compound where ill winds were palpably blowing.

On Friday night, the church's large bell was suddenly pealing, in a call for help. An elderly monk says that the bell had not been used that way for the last 50 years. The "rebels" rang it to warn of danger. Irineos had brought in four burly security guards - some say they were Arabs from Lod, others say they were brought in from Cyprus - a highly uncommon move that aroused the anger of the other residents of the patriarchate. About 50 people answered the bell's call and under cover of darkness, a charged confrontation developed inside the patriarchate. The police arrived in large numbers and some remained in the holy place.

Meanwhile, Irineos' rivals dealt him another symbolic, yet painful, blow: They went from house to house and from shop to shop in the part of the Old City near the patriarchate and instructed neighborhood residents to take his picture off their walls. Irineos says that he himself saw "them" throwing his picture to the ground and trampling it with their feet. Business-owners in the area confirm that there is a menacing atmosphere and that even some of Irineos' close associates in the neighborhood have now opted to keep their distance from him and to remove the pictures.

The patriarch's private apartment is modest and in now way hints at the huge sums that his rivals accuse him of possessing. In the middle of the room is a large wooden table surrounded by pictures of saints. On the table are two laptop computers, which are now his main channel of communication with the outside world and the main tool in his counterattack.

He admits that he doesn't have any idea how to use the computer, but there are people who help him. Throughout our conversation, the patriarchate's new money man (who replaced Nicholas Papadimas, the previous financial manager, who was apparently the main player in the notorious real estate deal and has since fled the country) was busy collecting and processing information. Among the data he found was a long list of church properties that Irineos had restored to church ownership during the years of his tenure. But they still amount to too little, too late. What's more, some of the relevant documents are in the possession of the patriarchate's secretariat, which is currently "under the occupation of my rivals," as Irineos puts it.

This warlike terminology is not surprising. The patriarchate is pervaded by a hostile atmosphere these days. The gate is locked, and hardly anyone goes in or out. Anyone who is permitted to enter is led into the place through a small, low hatch in the big gate that is opened in accordance with the approval of those loyal to Irineos' replacement. Irineos' attorney, who came all the way from Greece to meet with him, had to wait two hours until he was granted permission to enter. "It's like a prison," Irineos accuses. "I have no idea what their criteria are, who is permitted and who isn't permitted to enter."

"I didn't lease or sell anything," Irineos repeats numerous times in the course of the conversation. "But I have a question: When my rivals were involved in the past in selling and leasing church properties, no scandal like this ever erupted. What's happened now?" And he goes on to provide the answer himself: "Someone exploited the sensitivity of the present time. There's no other explanation for this story, which did not come about naturally."

There is something to this argument. Entire neighborhoods, buildings and many public structures, inside and outside of Jerusalem, stand on lands that the Greeks sold and leased to Israel in the past, including in recent years. Until 1840, the patriarchate in Jerusalem was extremely poor. In 1840, as a result of a wise investment of money earned from a real estate deal in Europe, the Greek Orthodox Church became the wealthiest in the region, rich in assets and properties. Due to its ownership of lands, the church acquired a special status among Israelis. If assets were indeed sold to extreme right-wing groups (at this stage, the identity of the buyers is still unknown), it would be a political time bomb. Indeed, the Petra building and the Imperial Hotel stand in a strategic location in the Old City, close to Jaffa Gate. One could say, without exaggerating, that in terms of the volatility potential, this is the secular Temple Mount.

At the law offices of Aharonson, Sher, Abulafia, Amodai and Co., which is representing the patriarchate, they say: "There was no deal that the patriarch was involved in." Attorney Gilad Sher: "With regard to the Imperial Hotel, we conveyed three purchase offers from Israeli, Arab and Christian clients to the patriarchate and the patriarch didn't accept any one of them. He didn't lend a hand to any deal in East Jerusalem, and revenge was not long in coming. Extreme right-wing elements are interested in seeing him go, also because he refused to do a real estate deal with them in the area of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. If there really was a deal for the Petra and the Imperial, as they claim, then where is the buyer? Why hasn't he gone to court to have the deal declared valid?"

With authority from Israel

Now everyone is "investigating." Israel established an investigative committee headed by Minister of Jerusalem Affairs Tzachi Hanegbi, which has yet to begin working, and the Palestinians established their own committee, which has concluded its work and collected its findings in a 50-page report. The report has yet to be made public, but information seen by attorneys Gilad Sher and Ehud Segev indicates that, according to the Palestinian investigation, a conspiracy was hatched against Irineos from within the patriarchate by people who did not want him in the post from the beginning, and that they had in fact started a deal for the sale of certain properties, using a power of attorney that Irineos had signed. But, the lawyers say, it was used improperly and without his knowledge.

According to this version of events, the people from the extreme right-wing groups collaborated with people inside the patriarchate and even knew ahead of time about the moves that "the rebels" would take. One of the Israelis involved, so the story goes, knew enough to warn the patriarch in early March: "If you don't cooperate, an atomic bomb will fall on the patriarchate." A few days later, on the eve of the Sabbath of Light, the last Saturday before the Orthodox Christian Easter holiday, the bomb fell - in the form of a report in the daily Maariv, asserting that Irineos was suspected of carrying out the deal with the right-wing extremists.

But much is still mysterious about the Palestinian committee's report. If the findings clearing Irineos of all suspicion are so unequivocal, why aren't they being made public? Perhaps because of political interests, perhaps because of diplomatic interests associated with the good relations that the Palestinians have with the Greek authorities, who have already washed their hands of the patriarch. In any event, the Palestinian prime minister, Abu Ala, said this week that "more investigation is needed."

It's doubtful whether a full publication of the report will help Irineos at this point. It's also doubtful whether the appeal concerning the validity of the proceedings by which he was demoted will really be able to save him. Even if he is in fact totally righteous, his cause appears to be lost anyway. Irineos has lost the trust of most of his flock in Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan. They say that the Greek Orthodox Church in Ein Ariq near Ramallah is the only place where he is still received with respect. Otherwise, he is totally isolated.

He has also lost control of the management of the patriarchate. They say that even the locks on the doors of the secretariat were changed to prevent him from having access. He no longer walks at the head of parades and does not go down to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher anymore. Only his dogged endurance inspires a degree of respect. "Anyone else would have broken a long time ago," people say. "He's very stubborn." Only a few junior monks have stayed by his side in the patriarchate. "It's my mission from God, to be by his side now," the monk Chrisostomos, who is of American origin, said determinedly.

Put to the test

If God wanted to put his servant to the test, he couldn't have chosen any trickier timing in which to do so. The affair of the patriarchate in Jerusalem is seemingly entangled with another one in the Orthodox Church in Athens. Among other charges being made against the archbishop of Athens, Christodoulos, is that he sent to Jerusalem one Apostolos Vavylis, a felon who has served time for drug trafficking and is wanted by Interpol, in order to assist in Irineos' election. The archbishop denies that he sent Vavylis, but confirms that he did see him in Jerusalem, working as part of the team of bodyguards at Irineos' inaugural ceremony, and assumed that he had been hired by the patriarchate. One Greek newspaper wrote that the Israeli Mossad is also involved in the affair.

The overlapping of these affairs is not doing Irineos any good. His people maintain that he is being used as the scapegoat of the affair in Greece. Beyond the church, Greek officialdom is also quite dismayed and Greece's Foreign Ministry is firm in its opposition to Irineos' continued tenure. "They're recruiting all the media against me," the patriarch complains. Meanwhile, his name has been removed from the Orthodox Church's official Web sites all over the world and replaced with that of Cornelius.

Irineos is getting some surprising support from the Georgians. Despite the tensions between the two churches in Jerusalem, the Georgian patriarch supported Irineos in the Istanbul vote. The move wasn't prompted solely by personal closeness; political interests played a part, too. The Georgians apparently fear that if the Greeks are weakened, Russia's influence in Jerusalem will be strengthened, via its church. They see Irineos as a barrier against this happening.

But Irineos is mainly being protected now by Israel. It is from Israel that he draws his authority and it provides him with protection through its continuing recognition of his status as patriarch. Only last week, Irineos appeared at the President's Residence, at a reception for new ambassadors. This isn't necessarily good for him and it may not be good for Israel in the long run.

"I have the feeling that Israel is pushing too hard to protect someone who isn't accepted by his people," a foreign expert on the Orthodox Christian world told Haaretz. "I fear that this could be a dangerous strategy."

Less scholarly but similar assessments are being made in the streets and coffeehouses of the Old City. There, people are sure that it's not just extreme rightists, but also official Israeli bodies, that are behind the purchase of the properties in the Old City. "Maybe the buyers are waiting for a better time to reveal themselves," say people who have been following the matter. "Maybe we'll only know the truth after the disengagement, and maybe we won't know it for years."

So what do we have in the meantime? A patriarch who's talking about a "spiritual putsch" and clinging to his seat even though his name has already been removed from the list of patriarchs; a replacement who is recognized by the church around the world but not by Israel; and a real estate deal that may or may not have been completed, and buyers whose identity is unknown. Israel finds itself on a collision course with the world of the Orthodox Church, but cannot, politically, withdraw its support from the patriarch over a suspicion that he sold property in Jerusalem to Jews.

With things having calmed down somewhat recently, people close to the patriarch believe that all the parties are interested in letting the affair fade out on its own. According to one scenario, Irineos will remain in the patriarchate for some more months, maintaining his title but devoid of authority, until both sides are satisfied and Greece quietly takes him back.