Ousted Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Finally Gets to Go Home

Irenaeus I, who reportedly sold strategic church properties to a Jewish settler group, accused the church of preventing him from returning to Greece after he fell seriously ill

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Ousted Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, Irenaeus I, at Ben-Gurion Airport, August 29, 2019.
Ousted Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, Irenaeus I, at Ben-Gurion Airport, August 29, 2019. Credit: Nir Keidar

The ousted Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, Irenaeus I, departed Israel for Greece on Thursday. His departure puts an end to a 15-year-old religious and political saga.

Irenaeus became one of the most fascinating, mysterious and controversial figures during the 68 years he spent in Jerusalem.

He was ousted from his position 14 years ago after he reportedly sold strategic church properties to the Ateret Cohanim settler organization. Since his ouster, he has been living alone in a small apartment on the top floor of the Patriarchate’s building in the Old City; it was unclear whether he chose to do so or was forced into this arrangement.

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His supporters say he was imprisoned there at the orders of his chief adversary, the current patriarch, Theophilos III, while Theophilos says Irenaeus sequestered himself in the apartment. Either way, the former patriarch spent all those years alone, receiving food via a basket tied to a rope that he would let down from the window. A Muslim family from the Old City that remained faithful to him sent their children to place food for him in the basket.

Irenaeus recently became very ill, and claimed that the church was withholding his passport and preventing him from returning to Greece.

For several years, Irenaeus has been suffering from a serious pulmonary illness and has been hospitalized a number of times. Two weeks ago, he was admitted to the hospital and then discharged a few days later. He claims the patriarch gave orders for him to be sent to recuperate at the Deir Hajla monastery near Jericho. Irenaeus’s supporters say the real objective of this was to make him suffer and shorten his life. “My body cannot bear the heat of Jericho, where they transferred me against my will,” Irenaeus wrote in an emotional letter to the Greek Consulate.

For a short time, Irenaeus was one of the most important and powerful people in Jerusalem, but he will be remembered as the tragic protagonist of a scandal that has yet to die down, nearly a decade and a half after it first came to light.

Since he was impeached, he and a handful of supporters within the church have been waging a battle to clear his name.

Irenaeus first arrived in Jerusalem in 1953, when he was 12. He was educated at the Patriarchate’s school. Thereafter, he held a series of positions in the church in Jerusalem and Greece, until he was appointed Patriarch of Jerusalem in 2000 – one of the most senior religious positions in the Christian world.

The Jerusalem Patriarch oversees vast communities of believers and leads the most important religious ceremonies on the Eastern Orthodox Churches’ calendar. The position also includes managing the Greek Church’s vast real estate holdings in Israel. This aspect of the job would ensnare him in controversy, as was the case with every other Greek Patriarch in past decades.