Once One of the Most Powerful Figures in Jerusalem, This Patriarch Wants to Go Home

Greek Orthodox Patriarch Irenaeus was ousted from his position after being accused of selling church property to a settler organization and has spent the last 11 years shut up in his apartment. Now old and ailing, he is still fighting his successor

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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Irenaeus at St. Joseph's Hospital in East Jerusalem, August 8, 2019.
Irenaeus at St. Joseph's Hospital in East Jerusalem, August 8, 2019. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

In a spacious private room at Saint Joseph Hospital in East Jerusalem, an 80-year-old man lies tethered to an oxygen tank, handicapped and very ill. For a short time, he 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. The man is Irenaeus I, the 140th Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, who was ousted from his position 14 years ago when he reportedly sold strategic church properties to the Ateret Cohanim settler organization.

Ever since, he and a handful of supporters within the church have been waging a battle to clear his name. For nearly all of the time since his unprecedented ouster, he remained holed up in a small apartment on the top floor of the Patriarchate’s building in the Old City. Irenaeus and his supporters say he was imprisoned there at the orders of his chief adversary, the current patriarch, Theophilos III. Theophilos III 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.

But in the past few years, his associates say that his health has deteriorated due to the difficult living conditions he was forced into, and now they want him to be allowed to return to Greece. There he would be able to recover or live out the rest of his life at a monastery which has been converted into a rehabilitation center for sick and elderly clergy and monks. Irenaeus’s supporters say that his rivals in the Patriarchate are withholding even this final act of compassion. His passport is in their hands, and they are refusing to let him leave. The Patriarchate denies these claims and says the passport is now at the Greek consulate, and once they get it back, it will be delivered to Irenaeus.

A recipe for trouble

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.

>> Read more: 'We go back 800 years': Palestinian fights settler NGO's takeover of Jerusalem hotel

Irenaeus at the home he claims to be imprisoned in, Jerusalem, 2005. Credit: Michal Fattal

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.

The affair ruptured in 2004, when Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv broke the story of the sale of two large buildings by Jaffa Gate – the Petra and Imperial Hotels – from the Greek Church to Ateret Cohanim, a group devoted to enlarging the Jewish presence in Jerusalem. The ensuing uproar led to a response from Irenaeus’s rivals in the church that was apparently unprecedented in its long history: the ouster of a sitting patriarch. A special summit of church leaders convened in Istanbul and decided upon his removal. Irenaeus was demoted to the modest rank of monk and his name was erased from the Patriarchate’s prayer books around the world.

Irenaeus refused to recognize the ouster and continued to view himself as the Patriarch of Jerusalem. He locked himself up (or was imprisoned, depending on one’s point of view) in his apartment in the Patriarchate building and the gloomy figure peering from the window soon became a symbol of Jerusalem’s Old City. “My incarceration does not derive from will but from force,” Irenaeus said in a 2011 interview with Haaretz. “I have the option of leaving the Patriarchate but I know that my return would be out of the question. Meaning that they are compelling me to remain in the apartment. Therefore, my incarceration does not derive from my free decision but from torment that is being forced upon me by all those who harbor hostility toward me, with the aim of destroying me emotionally and physically.”

Meanwhile, the new patriarch began its war against the sale of the hotels. In the course of this effort, it came out that the sale was tainted with corruption; that payments had been transferred from the settlers to church officials for the inexplicably low sum that was paid for the buildings. But two months ago, Israel’s Supreme Court ruled that the Patriarchate had not proven that the deal was not genuine, and the court approved it. Ateret Cohanim began evicting the Palestinian tenants who ran the Petra and Imperial Hotels, while the Patriarchate filed another lawsuit to have the deal annulled on the basis of new evidence.

At first, Irenaeus waged a legal and public relations battle to clear his name. For a few years, he also refused to give to the new patriarch several ceremonial ritual objects. But in time, the number of his supporters in Jerusalem dwindled, he was forgotten in his apartment and Theophilos III secured his status as the sole legal patriarch. A few times, the two rivals even met, and once Theophilos III came to visit him in the hospital. But even now, with Irenaeus in worsening health, his war doesn’t appear to be over.

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.

Twice he was transferred to the monastery in the past two weeks, and twice he was taken back to the hospital. His associates say that during this time Irenaeus decided to return to Greece. This does not mean Irenaeus is giving up his claim to recognition as the legal patriarch, they say, but rather the move is an attempt to save his life. “When you’re 80 and they send you to the 50-degree heat of Jericho to a room with an air-conditioning unit, even though the doctor said he mustn’t be near air-conditioning – they’re putting you in such conditions so that you’ll die faster,” says one of the nuns who came from Greece to tend to Irenaeus. “It’s not that he doesn’t want to be in Jerusalem. He just wants to save his own life.”

A small group of monasteries and religious communities in Greece called “Spiritual Family” has remained loyal to Irenaeus and two nuns belonging to the group had come to Jerusalem to take care of him. Irenaeus’s sister has also been at his bedside.

In his present condition, it’s hard to understand what Irenaeus really wants. During a visit to his hospital room last week, he nodded when a crew from Haaretz was introduced to him, and also nodded his permission to be photographed. Then another twist in the plot occurred. After Haaretz contacted the Patriarchate for comment, officials from the Greek consulate came to Irenaeus’s hospital room to interview him. Due to his illness and medications, he was not fully lucid and responded to all of their questions with a single word – “no.” Including when asked if he wished to return to Greece.

The Imperial Hotel in Jerusalem's Old City, July 11, 2019. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

His associates say he was in poor physical and emotional condition and did not understand the situation. Irenaeus’s real wish, they say, was made clear in the letter he sent three weeks ago to the Greek consulate in Jerusalem, as well as to the Greek prime minister and several other ministers. “I request that my passport be transferred to me immediately,” he wrote. He also asked to move to a special monastery in Greece for continued care. “There I can remain until my health is restored, since I am without a salary and without health insurance. My health problems were caused as a result of 11 years of incarceration in the Patriarchate as a result of the anti-canonical and illegal ouster on the basis of accusations of my children and partners. I beseech the Lord to show them mercy for this unforgivable deed.”

In the letter he lists all the wrongs he says were done to him, and the reasons why he is innocent and the ouster was illegal. One of the nuns from “Spiritual Family” says the Greek Consulate declined to accept the letter because he signed it “Patriarch Irenaeus” and they do not recognize him as the patriarch. “We told them, ‘He is a citizen of Greece. Why won’t you accept the letter?’ They took the letter, went inside and then came out a while later and said they were not willing to take it,” she says.

A dramatic decision

The Greek Patriarchate rejected claims of poor treatment of Irenaeus and confiscation of his passport. Sources in the Patriarchate insist that Irenaeus’s passport is at the consulate so his visa can be extended – a necessary condition for travel to Greece. They also contend that two days after Irenaeus sent his letter to the consulate, in a surprising development, the Patriarchate synod convened and made the dramatic decision to recognize Irenaeus as a “former patriarch,” restoring some of his honor, as they had hitherto treated him as a simple monk.

Theophilos III in 2005. Credit: Tomer Applebaum

But Irenaeus’s supporters say this is just a ploy to keep Irenaeus close, to prevent him from going to Greece, and to repair the Patriarchate’s image. “This was Theophilos’s last card to show concerning its treatment of him. “They don’t want him to be turned into a martyr,” says the nun.

“How compassionate he is, but he doesn’t really care,” says a priest who is also called Irenaeus and is one of the ousted patriarch’s biggest supporters. “They just want to keep on controlling him, so he won’t start to talk. Theophilos is worried that in Greece he could somehow get well and start talking about the deals.”

In the meantime, Irenaeus received a small kindness: two weeks ago, at the entrance to the Deir Hajla monastery, he was welcomed by Archimandrite Chrysostomos who was once one of his biggest opponents but began to support him in the last decade. “He got down on his knees and kissed Irenaeus’s hand and tearfully asked forgiveness for having signed the petition against him,” the nun said, who witnessed the encounter.

In response the Greek Patriarchate said: “The Patriarchate sees to all the needs of the previous Patriarch of Jerusalem Irenaeus, who is seriously ill. We have a duty to look after all of our friends and we made sure he received the highest standard of professional care around the clock by top experts.

“We are currently taking care of renewing the former patriarch’s visa and passport at the consulate, and we expect them to be ready in the coming days. The Patriarch of Jerusalem and all of the clergy will continue to support the previous patriarch and his family during this difficult time. We pray for his speedy recovery.”

The Greek Consulate could not be reached for comment.

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