Convicted former minister Shlomo Benizri got a show of support recently from an unexpected source: No less a person than the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, Theophilos III, submitted a request for Benizri's pardon to President Shimon Peres and Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman.
Justice Ministry officials said they were stunned by the request: It is highly unusual, they noted, for a senior church official to seek amnesty for a former cabinet minister.
Benizri, of Shas, is currently serving a four-year prison term after being convicted of taking bribes and breach of trust.
The patriarch based his request on what he termed his deep familiarity with Benizri's many acts of assistance to the Greek Orthodox community. Benizri, he said, is a very generous man, well-known for secret acts of charity to the needy.
However, Theophilos stressed, he has no social relationship with Benizri; his request is based solely on his professional acquaintance with the ex-minister.
Benizri himself has yet to formally request a pardon. A few months ago, a relative submitted an application for the ex-minister's pardon, but this was ignored by the president and the Justice Ministry on the grounds that by law, they cannot consider granting amnesty unless either the prisoner himself requests it or an application submitted on his behalf was clearly submitted with his knowledge and consent.
However, the ministry said, should Benizri or someone acting on his behalf file a pardon application, any requests submitted previously - such as that of the Greek patriarch - would be appended to his file and considered by the president and the justice minister.
Benizri's brother, David, told Haaretz that Benizri had received a copy of Theophilos' letter at Ma'asiyahu Prison, but had not known about it beforehand.
"It warms my heart that this man hasn't forgotten me," David Benizri quoted his brother as saying. "It's very nice of him."
He also related that when Benizri served as labor and welfare minister in 2001-02, Theophilos - then a lower-ranking official in the church - had contacted the minister about "aiding a group of needy Christians and Muslims. My brother appointed his personal aide to deal with the request, and it was rapidly answered by the appropriate unit of the ministry."
He said he did not know whether the two had been in contact since.
Theophilos was named patriarch of Jerusalem by his church in 2005, but Israel finally recognized the appointment only two years later. During those two years, a battle raged - both in the courts and in the streets of the Old City - between Theophilos' camp and that of the former patriarch, Irineos. The Sharon government and, later, Olmert's, both backed Irineos, as they deemed Theophilos closer to the Palestinians and feared he might renege on the patriarchal commitments to the government over land leases.
The logjam was finally broken when then religious services minister Yitzhak Cohen - also of Shas - withdrew his objection to Theophilos.
Benizri was convicted in April 2008 of having helped his friend Moshe Sela, a labor contractor who specialized in bringing foreign workers into Israel, to secure the necessary permits, in exchange for NIS 100,000. At the time, Benizri was serving as labor minister, meaning he was responsible for the state Employment Service.
The Jerusalem District Court sentenced him to 18 months in prison, but on appeal, the Supreme Court increased the sentence to four years. The latter court said a stiffer sentence was necessary to deter government corruption, "which has become a societal plague."
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