Theophilos - Tomer Apelbaum/Bau Bau
Theophilos. Irenaios calls his successor "adulterous". Photo by Tomer Apelbaum/BauBau
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On Saturday, January 1, the alley that cuts through the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem's Old City was full of activity. Merchants spread out carpets and souvenirs, tourists contemplated whether to buy the wares, and others looked for the way to pilgrimage sites. Had they raised their eyes to the third floor in a building beside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, they would have seen a figure behind a barred window, with a scepter in his hand, gazing out at the commotion. The man in the window was Irenaios I, the former Greek Orthodox patriarch of Jerusalem who in 2005 was sacked from a position that one usually departs only upon death.

In March 2005, it was reported that the patriarchate, an institution that owns abundant real estate in the city, had sold several buildings just inside Jaffa Gate to the right-wing Jewish religious organization Ateret Cohanim. Most of the church's members in Israel are Arab, and the patriarchate's area of responsibility includes Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, so the church found itself in an embarrassing situation. It quickly withdrew its recognition of Irenaios and appointed a new patriarch.

Irenaios refused to accept his dismissal, and charged that the real estate affair was an attempt by his opponents to frame him. One day the media reported that he had disappeared. When the following day he returned to the patriarchate, in the company of policemen, he found that the locks to his office had been replaced. He himself was locked in his small official flat.

From then on, despite Israeli government decisions and High Court of Justice rulings, Irenaios refused to recognize the dismissal's legality. Since then he has also remained an effective prisoner in his own apartment. For almost six years, this man, who headed the most powerful church in the land and was considered the head of the Christian communities in the Middle East, has been shut up in a flat in one of the patriarchate building's wings without being allowed any physical contact with the outside world. His rivals, he says, forbid him from meeting anyone or going to pray in church. To get food, he lowers a basket tied to a rope from one of the windows.

The Greek Patriarchate says Irenaios voluntarily imprisoned himself. Even though he was sacked by way of an acceptable and proper procedure, he refuses to accept the ruling; and even though he can leave his apartment, he prefers to remain locked up inside.

"Our imprisonment is not our voluntary confinement, but compulsory," argues the dismissed patriarch in an interview with Haaretz after a long period of silence. "It is possible for us to go out of the Patriarchate but the possibility for us to enter again within it is out of the question or placed under dispute. In essence, they compel us to remain within our cell because our leaving from it will have as a consequence the inability for us to return to it. Consequently our confinement does not originate from our unforced decision but from a martyrdom that all those who are hostile to us impose on us, intending our psychological and bodily annihilation."

Interview by fax

At the request of Irenaios, the interview was conducted in writing, via fax. The clergyman responded to all the questions in a long letter. He says that his successor, Patriarch Theophilos III, is "adulterous."

"They do nothing different than what Cain did to Abel, only to us they continue to do it every hour, every moment .... We are prey in their teeth, they are simply devouring us slowly. They are thus satisfied with our continued bleeding," he writes.

"The conditions are very difficult, but since these things are done by ecclesiastical people without a conscience, in the name of authority which they think that they lord over us, and all accountable state agents know these things without raising an issue of rudimentary protection of our human freedom and rights, I endure them without protesting.

"There is no law based on which they conduct themselves toward us with this inhumane manner since they do not respect our decision to expire even my last breath at the All Holy Sepulchre."

Irenaios, who is 71, writes these grave accusations in the first person plural, a common practice among senior clergymen. He also signs his long missive with the words "Confined Patriarch of Jerusalem." He still considers himself the legal patriarch of Jerusalem, the most important position in the Christian hierarchy in the Middle East.

Irenaios was appointed by the Holy Synod, the church's executive body, in 2001. For more than two years, Israel withheld recognition of the appointment, a measure that was legally essential to completing the process of installing a new patriarch. The government, which at that time was headed by Ariel Sharon, feared the new patriarch was pro-Palestinian, and that this would have implications both because most of his followers here would be Arab and especially because the church controls sensitive assets.

Former cabinet secretary Gideon Sa'ar, now education minister, filed a complaint at the time, alleging an attempt to bribe him in order to speed up recognition of the patriarch. Irenaios complained of an alleged attempt by his rivals in the church to forge a letter expressing his support for Yasser Arafat, then chairman of the Palestinian Authority, in order to present him as pro-Palestinian. Only in January 2004, about a year after the cases were closed (without reaching the court ), was Irenaios officially recognized by Israel.

In March 2005, Israeli media reported that in the previous year, the church had signed deals with Ateret Cohanim for a long-term lease - in effect a sale - of three hotels, two of them in the vicinity of Jaffa Gate. Two of the deals, for Petra Hotel and the St. John Hostel, were actually negotiated during the reign of Irenaios' immediate predecessor, Diodorus, but for various legal and other reasons were not fully implemented. The third agreement, the new one, was the lease of the New Imperial Hotel which, like the Jaffa Hotel, is located near Jaffa Gate. All three buildings were leased for 99 years at low rates, something that aroused suspicion.

It was not the first time the Greek Orthodox Church had sold property to Jewish buyers. The church controls large tracts of land, from the coastal plain to the Galilee, and leases them in long-term arrangements, to the government or to the Jewish National Fund. Most of land on which Jerusalem's Rehavia neighborhood was built, for example, as well as the land under the Knesset building, is owned by the church. In several instances the church's name turns up in controversial real estate deals that not only make headlines but also end up in court. But the deals concerning the buildings adjacent to the Jaffa Gate were of particular sensitivity.

Irenaios was naturally seen as the person responsible for those transactions. Demonstrations demanding his resignation were held in Jerusalem, displeasure was expressed in Jordan, and in the Palestinian Authority he was accused of collaborating with Israel in its efforts to Judaize East Jerusalem. Three investigative committees were quickly set up to look into the affair by the Jordanian government, the Palestinian Authority and the Greek government, respectively. All three summoned the patriarch to appear before them.

Irenaios blamed the patriarchate's financial advisor, Nikos Papadimas, for everything. He said a stamp was stolen and a signature forged, adding that in the contacts with Ateret Cohanim, Papadimas had acted in his own name, and that when the patriarch learned of his actions, he had stopped the deals.

Papadimas, who fled to the United States in 2004 over embezzlement rumors, said from his hiding place that Irenaios had known what he was doing and supported it.

According to Irenaios, his enemies in the church joined with right-wing Israeli groups to pave the way for his dismissal and the appointment of a patriarch who would be more lenient on the matter of real estate. The stories about the Old City transactions, he argued, were not intended to block them, but rather to spur the appointment of a new patriarch who, unlike himself, would allow the deals to go through.

Nonetheless, the damage had been done, and it occurred on Irenaios' watch. For the Greek Orthodox Church, that was too much. In June 2005, the church's leaders met in Istanbul and decided to depose the patriarch. That August they elected his rival, Theophilos, as his successor. His former fellow patriarchs around the world stopped saying prayers for his wellbeing and he was demoted to the rank of a simple monk and forced into his small official apartment, Irenaios says.

Victim of a putsch

Even now, in his interview with Haaretz, he talks of being the victim of a putsch. "The events and the actions which took place in our Patriarchate during the critical period from May of 2005 onward, constitute literally a coup d'etat within the Church of which there is no similar incident in its history. Everything that happened is illegal and contrary to the Sacred Canons," Irenaios writes in his answer to Haaretz. "Never will we stop believing, that Theophilos is an adulterous occupant and that uncanonically and illegally he ousted me from the Patriarchal Throne of the Church of Jerusalem ....

"He does this in order to accomplish through this inhumane behavior of his our psychological withering or our physical annihilation, because who can endure being pent up for three years in a cell, without going insane or dying from the severe or hideous living conditions. Only the innocent, he who has a pure conscience, he who prays and sees God in the face of others, he is able to endure. I feel pain not for myself but for the soul of this man who has taken upon his neck the whole brotherhood of the All-Holy Sepulchre and is leading it to ruin."

Palestinian attorney Elias Khoury headed the Palestinian Authority's investigative committee that eventually cleared Irenaios and declared that his dismissal was illegal. Today Khoury goes even further, and talks of acts of intrigue that would have put even ancient Rome to shame.

He says that Irenaios' rivals in the church presented a threefold ruse: To the Palestinians, they presented him as a traitor who sells lands to right-wing Jewish associations; to the Israelis, they presented him as being pro-Palestinian; and to the Greeks, they depicted Irenaios as someone who aspired to make the church more Arab. While most of the church's followers in the area are Arab, promotion within the church hierarchy is reserved for individuals of Greek origin, and they are also the ones who manage the church's famed assets. Over the years, there has been occasional calls to "Arabize" the church, something that would have meant removing Greek clergy from some of their senior positions.

There is no doubt that the patriarch had rivals in the church. But when the affair exploded, assumptions were made as to why Irenaios himself would have supported the deals. Despite its valuable assets, the church is in the throes of an financial crisis. A debt of tens of millions of shekels has forced it to sell off assets. Some people pointed to the close timing between Israel's eventual recognition of the patriarch and these deals, and wondered whether this was not the price that Irenaios paid in order to finally win recognition.

And indeed, for more than two years after his dismissal, the Israeli government continued to recognize Irenaios. Just as it took its time to recognize his appointment, it delayed recognition of his replacement, Theophilos. Eventually the successor appealed to Israel's High Court of Justice, claiming that the government was conditioning its recognition upon the church's approval of the deal with Ateret Cohanim.

Only at the end of 2007 did the government officially recognize Theophilos. Former minister Tzachi Hanegbi, who at that time was responsible for contacts with the patriarchs, said, "[Ariel] Sharon would not condone a person being sacked for daring to sell an asset to Jews in Jerusalem. That is why he refused to recognize the new patriarch. But there was pressure from Jordan and from Greece, and in the end Irenaios was indeed left in the lurch."

Irenaios and a small group of loyal supporters also appealed to the High Court, to protest the government's recognition of Theophilos but it was for nought. Now Irenaios and his supporters say that Israel's changed position has to do with real estate deals that the new patriarch agreed to conclude with the state, including his approval of the sale of the Jaffa Gate assets. Theophilos himself strenuously denies this, and is in fact waging a determined legal battle to have those deals annulled.

'God does not bless this'

Does Irenaios feel that Israel betrayed him?

"Israel was not steadfast towards us. In the beginning, it stood with the law, and accepted that our dethronement was not a result of a lawful proceeding .... However when there does not follow the lawful, the canonical, the moral, but transactional proceedings are preferred in order for a position to be fortified ... God does not bless this .... It is not by chance, that all those who were involved negatively in the matter of the Patriarchate in Greece and in Israel either lost their position as minister, or they were not even elected representatives." Irenaios does not go into detail, but he is likely referring to Tzachi Hanegbi and former minister Rafi Eitan, who headed the ministerial committee for patriarchate affairs that was formed by Ehud Olmert when he was prime minister. Both ministers, Theophilos alleged, had said that the state's recognition of his appointment depended on approval of the deal with Ateret Cohanim. Hanegbi, as is known, was recently compelled to quit the Knesset after having been convicted of giving false testimony in an affair concerning political appointments. Rafi Eitan was not even elected to the current Knesset.

Irenaios says that the conditions of his imprisonment took a turn for the worse at about the same time that the Israeli government reversed its stance. Since then, he writes, "not only is it denied to visitors to see us, but they tell them that they do not know us, that we are not here, that we do not exist and other such things. Many ecclesiastical people, from here and from Greece and abroad, ask to see us and they do not allow them. Likewise pilgrims, simple people or even politicians, receive the same answer .... [Even] long-term convicts have the right of visitation, while to us, who have not ever been convicted by any court concerning any matter, is not permitted even a visitation!"

What does daily life look like in his domestic prison?

"We perform all the daily Services and the prayers in our cell, from the time they deprived us of the Church of Saint Thekla, which is outside of our cell within a small internal courtyard of the Patriarchate. I communicate by telephone with many people, ecclesiastical and lay, members of our Community, from Israel, Palestine, Greece and generally abroad, who call us out of interest for our health as well as to express their solidarity in our struggle against the martyrdom and injustice which we suffer."

Beside the phone and a fax machine, the only contact Irenaios has with the outside world is via his third-floor window. Through it he sees the world and through it he gets his food. Every evening someone from the Abu Amar family, a Muslim Palestinian family from the Old City that is close to the church and whose members number among the deposed patriarch's confidants, comes to the window and fills the bag, which Irenaios then pulls up by rope. "Our nourishment and our subsistence are from what we already have as well as from any help from Pilgrims and pious people who show interest," he says. "Our visible contact with the world is from this window ... which looks toward the path of Saint Helena that leads to the All-Holy Sepulchre."

Legal morass

In the meantime, Ateret Cohanim is waging another battle in its campaign. Through three companies registered abroad it sued, in 2008, the patriarchate, the incumbent patriarch and Irenaios, demanding they honor the agreement on the sale of the hotels. Since then the suit has mushroomed into a legal morass, with endless interim requests; 101 interim decisions having been made to date. Supreme Court appeals have been filed against some of those decisions. Sources involved in the case estimate that it will take years to unravel the bundle of complex legal issues.

For the time being, two bitter rivals, Theophilos and Irenaios, are both asking that the sale be revoked. Recently an old-new player joined the picture: Papadimas, the former legal adviser, petitioned the Jerusalem District Court to join the case as a respondent in the suit filed by Ateret Cohanim.

"It is a very sad story," says Elias Khoury, himself a member of the Orthodox community. "Irenaios has no other place in the world. He is a person who grew up and lived in this place from the age of 12." He criticizes the way the incumbent patriarch and his people have been conducting themselves. "I do not know on the basis of which law and what values they are doing these things, barring people from visiting him, sending him food through the window. It is a very sad story, which shows to what levels the church has deteriorated."

Another lawyer, Daniel Robbins, concurs that for Irenaios, "The patriarchate is all he has in this world. He has no property and hardly has a family, so they should at least give him the key to the place in which he is locked. Let us assume that he really does not want to go out, is that a reason not to let others see him?"

Robbins, who has visited Irenaios three times in recent weeks, did so only with the court's backing and following negotiations with the patriarchate. The attorney, who represents a Palestinian whom the patriarchate sued, asked to have Irenaios sign an affidavit in connection with that case. Only after a judge ruled that the legal process would be halted until the affidavit was signed did the patriarchate agree to the visit.

"To go see a person who has not seen another person up close for three years was a cause of great emotion," says Robbins. "He does not know me at all, and yet the hugs I got from him ... it was a human event of stunning intensity."

Since then, a close relationship has developed between the two, and the lawyer will probably represent the deposed patriarch in his appeal of another case that the church is waging against him: a demand that he return the sacred vessels that he is holding. Recently the court ruled against Irenaios on this case, and now he is considering whether to appeal. Implementation of the ruling has been frozen pending a decision on an appeal.

"The Apostolic succession to the Throne of the Patriarchate of Jerusalem has been broken and whoever calls himself or becomes Patriarch on the throne, which has not become vacant because, neither did we stop living nor did we abdicate, usurps the service which God vouchsafed to us," declares Irenaios. "It is tragic to see politicians or military leaders coming to hobnob with Theophilos, to commend his work, to applaud him," he goes on. It is "even more tragic [to see] ecclesiastical people who exchange wishes with him, and while I am 30 meters away from the place where they see him, either they do not even ask about us, or when they do ask they accept censures, sarcastic remarks, laughter of mockery, making those who ask appear as if they are asking about an insane person who has closed himself in his cell, awaiting the day that he will sit again on his Throne!"

 

The Greek Patriarchate's response: "Monk Irenaios is not in prison. He has chosen with his own free will to lock himself up within the compound of the Patriarchate. At the same time, the Patriarchate is a monastery, and like all other monasteries of the world, has rules and regulations that all priests belonging to the order must obey. Monk Irenaios does not abide by the rules of the church, he carries on holding himself as a Patriarch and refuses to recognize the authority of the current Patriarch, Theophilos III, and the authority of the Holy Synod."

The church continues: "In spite of all the above and the adamant rejection of the very basic admission of the faith to his Patriarch, the patriarchate, through the guidance of his Beatitude Patriarch Theophilos III, tirelessly tried to include Monk Irenaios in the distribution of the food that it gives to all members of the Patriarchate. Monk Irenaios rejected this and continues to refuse to be part of this. He is adamant about arranging his own food supply, and the fact is that he has done this successfully. Monk Irenaios has chosen to lock himself up of his own free will.

"Monk Irenaios," concludes the statement, "was deposed from his position as a Patriarch through a proper process and procedures and through the Canon Laws and ecclesiastic process of our Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem."