The Patriarch Doesn't Get Mail

On one thing the Internal Affairs Committee was in agreement yesterday: Patriarchs without property have it a lot easier in Israel. The head of the Christian Orthodox community in Israel, Fuad Farah, pointed out that a Latin patriarch and Protestant archbishop were recently elected, and they had no problem getting recognition. By contrast, for more than two years Israel has not recognized the Greek Orthodox patriarch Theofilos, whose church is among the important landowners in the country.

There is a special ministerial committee whose job is to recommend whether or not to recognize him. According to the head of legislative affairs in the Justice Ministry, Ariela Kalai, this committee was active already in the previous administration. But then the government changed and a new committee was formed. Meanwhile, the committee chair was also replaced. The consensus in the committee was that it's all because the patriarchate has so much real estate; i.e., real estate Israel wants.

After a long stretch in which the Knesset didn't touch the loaded topic of recognition for the Greek Orthodox patriarch, the chair of the Internal Affairs Committee, Ophir Pines-Paz (Labor) convened a meeting. As expected, there was a lot of shouting and insults. Effi Eitam (National Union) called Hadash chair Mohammed Barakeh a "thug"; Barakeh countered that Eitam is "a certified criminal." In the ensuing melee, National Union MKs Esterina Tartman and Eli Gabai tried to shoo their rivals from the meeting with cries of "Bara, bara" (out, out).

Pines-Paz drew on his experience and recounted that when he was interior minister, Ariel Sharon wouldn't let him go near the subject of recognition for the Greek patriarch, even though the matter was under his jurisdiction. There are, evidently, matters Sharon preferred to hold close to his chest, such as land deals in the Old City.

What does it signify that the government does not recognize the patriarch? Nadi Hilu said that, among other things, Theofilos cannot receive his mail, nor access the patriarchate bank account.

There was some good news from Ana Gandman, who represented Pensioners minister Rafi Eitan, who heads the ministerial committee on the matter of recognizing the Greek patriarch. She promised a decision would be made within weeks.

Two narratives were presented at the meeting on the question of why the state does not recognize the patriarch. Effi Eitam's narrative was that it's because "large parts of the very heart of Jerusalem, including the Knesset, are built on church lands." These lands were transfered to the state by unwritten agreements, and the state wants to ensure that the new patriarch does not abjure them; "so a patriarch doesn't come along and say we're selling the Knesset lands to a Saudi sheikh."

Is there really a concern that petro funds will take over the Knesset? Church officials claimed that they gave up the Knesset lands long ago. Pines-Paz believes the state is trying to protect land deals made in the days of the ousted patriarch Irenios with the Ateret Cohanim yeshiva and others, as was uncovered by Haaretz and Yedioth Ahronoth. Hilu said that Israel's conditioning recognition of the patriarch on his approving real estate deals "is a very serious attempt at blackmail. It is a criminal offense. They're trying to grab the patriarch by the throat." The head of the Orthodox association at Kfar Reina, Farah Baranasa, warned that unless the state recognizes the patriarch soon, we can expect another investigation of the prime minister.