Greek Orthodox Church Sets Bizarre Patriarch Precedent

Barring any last-minute changes, as of tomorrow morning Jerusalem's Greek Orthodox Church will have two patriarchs: Irineos the First, who is recognized only by Israel, and a new patriarch recognized by most of the Orthodox world, and by Jordan and the Palestinian Authority.

This bizarre state of affairs presents a problem for the Greek Orthodox Church, but more of a problem for Israel, which is on a collision course with the Orthodox world. Israel's stubborn position has provoked harsh criticism from the Greek government, which is embarrassed by the affair and seeks to end it quickly.

The unprecedented situation will come to pass if the planned election for Irineos' successor takes place tomorrow. Two months ago, the Orthodox Church dismissed Irineos, and he is no longer recognized as patriarch in the Orthodox world. Although the two other political entities that endorse the election of Jerusalem's patriarch (Jordan and the PA) have already officially removed their endorsement from Irineos, Israel refuses to do so.

The church's official reason for dismissing Irineos is poor performance, but behind the crisis are suspicions that he sold church real estate in Jerusalem's Old City to parties associated with Israel's extreme right. Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, who was appointed by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to conduct a probe into the matter, has deferred submitting his recommendations, despite the fact that the election is scheduled for tomorrow.

Tomorrow morning a body of 50 clergy and leaders, both Greek and Arab, isexpected to choose three runners-up from among 13 candidates. At the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, later in the day, a 14-member synod of bishops will elect one of the three as patriarch.

Among the leading candidates are the secretary general of the Jerusalem Patriarch Aristarchos; Bishop Theophilos, the official in charge of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and bishops Timothy and Cornelius. Sources close to the church speak of various "deals" that are being struck behind the scenes, including with Israeli officials.

Patriarchy officials say the timing of the elections is convenient, as Israel is busy with disengagement. "Israel will have no choice but to recognize the patriarch," one source said.