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For the first time since Irineos I was ousted from his post by the Greek Orthodox Church, the government has formally confirmed its continued recognition of him as patriarch of Jerusalem despite the appointment of a successor, Theofilos III.

This was conveyed in a letter sent to Irineos by Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, the chairman of a ministerial committee created to deal with issues surrounding the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate. The letter was sent following yesterday's "holy fire" ceremony at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

In the letter, Hanegbi thanks Irineos for agreeing to the request of the Israel Police that he not participate in the ceremony this year, which "greatly aided in maintaining public order and security during this important religious rite."

Hanegbi also emphasized that "the government of Israel continues to recognize you formally as the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, and the decisions regarding the holy fire ceremony do nothing to change this recognition."

The statement is intended to correct the impression created by the government's decision to permit Theofilos to conduct the ceremony "if the parties cannot reach an agreement."

Israel is the only state (contrary to Jordan and the Palestinian Authority) that still recognizes Irineos as patriarch. Irineos was removed from his post because he was suspected of selling strategic church properties in the Old City of Jerusalem to right-wing Israeli groups or individuals.

Hanegbi, who was appointed to examine the issue and submit his conclusions, insists that Israel cannot support the patriarch's removal precisely because the pretext for his dismissal was the sale of property in Jerusalem to Israelis.

Copies of Hanegbi's letter were sent to Interim Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.