The most important figure in the Orthodox Christian world has recognized the dismissal of Patriarch Irineos I, head of the Greek Orthodox Church in the Holy Land, according to sources in the Jerusalem Patriarchate.
The sources say that Bartholomaus, Patriarch of Constantinople, sent a letter yesterday to Irineos with the salutation "Patriarch Irineos, Jerusalem," rather than "The Patriarch Irineos of Jerusalem," something which constitutes a recognition of the dismissal.
However, despite the firm stand of Irineos' opponents, the dismissal may not be legally binding.
Irineos spent the day secluded in his small apartment, with three policemen armed with batons and wearing protective vests stationed at his door.
On Saturday, he was forced to spend the night at the Monastery of the Cross in West Jerusalem after his opponents locked him out of the Patriarchate compound in the Old City.
According to the Palestinian news agency Wafa, sources in the Patriarchate said, "Irineos has returned to the church as an ordinary clergyman after the title of Patriarch was taken from him," following a decision last week by the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulchre, also known as the Holy Synod, to divest him of the title.
In a phone conversation with Bartholomaus in Istanbul, Irineos expressed surprise at the his stand, and said that only Bartholomaus has the authority to convene the Synod.
Greek Orthodox Christians from the Galilee who met with Irineos yesterday said that his morale is high and he plans to remain at his post for as long as he lives.
The jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Jerusalem and the Holy Land includes Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority. According to Jordanian law, a Patriarch can only be dismissed by two-thirds of the Synod. Jordan announced over the weekend that if two-thirds of the Synod were indeed in favor of the dismissal, Jordan would recognize it.
Of the 17 member-Synod, 14 have reportedly voted for Irineos' dismissal. A meeting yesterday between Irineos' opponents and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia (Abu Ala) seemed to indicate that the PA also favors recognizing the dismissal. However, a great deal depends of the findings of various committees of inquiry examining Irineos' alleged sales of Patriarchate property near the Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem to Jews.
The Jordanian royal family is said to favor a quiet end to the affair, without the dismissal of the Patriarch.
Israeli law, based on Ottoman law, states that Irineos cannot be dismissed, but must resign of his own volition. Jordanian law has standing in East Jerusalem, even from Israel's point of view, and so the dismissal be legal after all.
Sources in the Prime Minister's Office said yesterday that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon advisor Shalom Turdjeman and the cabinet secretary, Yisrael Maimon, would be meeting with the two sides to hear their versions of events. The sources stressed that Israel would not be acting as an arbitrator and was not taking a stand on an internal church matter.
The justice and interior ministries have said they have no position on the matter, but talks involving legal experts are reportedly underway.
The Synod appointed three senior churchmen to manage the affairs of the church until a new Patriarch is elected. The three, metropolitans Vasilius, Isachios and Cornelius, said they were sure that the various countries involved would make their positions clear shortly.
Church spokesman Bishop Atalla Hana said yesterday, "The Israelis may not have understood us. The problem is not the sale of lands to Jews, but rather the lack of proper management and transparency, and fraud."
Hana, a native of the Galilee village of Rama, is the most senior Arab churchman in a hierarchy that is Greek, although its flock is Arab. Hana, who will become a member of the Synod if a new Patriarch is elected, said a few weeks ago that the tendency was to appoint more Arab members to the Synod, but in recent days he has toned down such statements. It was not good, he said recently, for Greeks in the church to emphasize their Greek citizenship and for Arabs to emphasize they are Palestinian and that, "the Church is open to all." However, sources say the Arab community will gain influence in the Church as a result of Irineos' dismissal.
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