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Greek Orthodox patriarch looks to the future

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  • Bill Samsonoff
    http://www.arabamericannews.com/news/index.php?mod=article&cat=Palestine&article=976 Greek Orthodox patriarch looks to the future Saturday, 05.03.2008, 09:36am
    Message 1 of 1 , May 5, 2008
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      Greek Orthodox patriarch looks to the future

      Saturday, 05.03.2008, 09:36am

      JERUSALEM (AP) — The Greek Orthodox Church in the
      Holy Land is trying to recover from a moral and
      financial crisis, its top clergyman, Patriarch
      Theofilos III, told The Associated Press in a rare interview.

      In recent years, the church has been shaken by
      secretive real estate deals with Israelis, by
      Palestinian laymen angry about domination by
      Greek priests, and by a vicious power struggle
      that resulted in the rare removal of an incumbent
      patriarch, Theofilos' predecessor.

      Installed in 2005, Theofilos faces multiple challenges.

      His congregation is shrinking. He is struggling
      to maintain a delicate balance between the
      church, its Arab congregants and the Israeli
      government. And he says he is trying to bring
      fiscal transparency to an institution that is the
      second largest landowner in the Holy Land, yet chronically in debt.

      "I say that our position is the position of an acrobat," he said of his church.

      It took the patriarch until December to win the
      required recognition from the three governments
      in the Holy Land — Israel, Jordan and the
      Palestinian Authority. For the first time in
      three years, he is leading Easter Week rites unchallenged.

      Still, this year's Holy Week — the Eastern rite
      churches are marking it now — was overshadowed
      again by squabbling. Several days ago, on Palm
      Sunday, Armenian and Greek Orthodox worshippers
      exchanged blows during a dispute over rights of
      worship at Jerusalem's Church of the Holy
      Sepulcher, built over the site where tradition
      says Jesus was buried and resurrected.

      Renewed tensions were expected during Saturday's
      holy fire ceremony at the Holy Sepulcher.

      Speaking in his office in Jerusalem's walled Old
      City this week, Theofilos said the Palm Sunday
      dispute was the result of a misunderstanding and
      that he hoped it could be resolved through dialogue.

      "We don't want to have more problems like this
      because they damage and destroy the image and the
      spirit of such events that are really very
      unique," said the 56-year-old patriarch.

      Before the interview, the black-robed slight
      patriarch greeted Greek pilgrims and handed out
      pictures of Jesus, while leaning on his sculpted staff.

      Still, Theofilos insisted that his church has a
      special role as one of the oldest denominations
      in the Holy Land — an argument that has riled
      other Christian groups competing for a share of the holy sites.

      "The patriarchate considers itself the host, and
      not the guest" in the Holy Land, said the
      Greek-born clergyman who grew up in Jerusalem.

      Theofilos acknowledged that recent years have been difficult for his church.

      "The crisis that the patriarchate passed through,
      it was both moral, which was the most important,
      and of course financial," he said. "There is no
      doubt about it. Now we are gradually recovering
      because order has been restored."

      The patriarch's predecessor, Irineos I, was
      ousted in May 2005 amid allegations that he
      leased two church-owned hotels in traditionally
      Arab east Jerusalem to groups trying to expand a Jewish presence there.

      Irineos has denied the allegations, but the
      leases enraged the church's predominantly
      Palestinian flock. Palestinians claim east
      Jerusalem as the capital of a future state.

      Theofilos has said he considers the leases
      invalid because they were never presented to the
      church's leadership group, or synod, for
      approval. The dispute has since moved to an Israeli court.

      The patriarch said he would honor legitimate
      transactions with the state of Israel, such as
      the long-term lease of land on which Israel's parliament was later built.

      However, all future transactions would be closely
      studied by the church leadership, he said. "We
      are not going to accept anymore the patriarchate
      to be treated as a real estate agency," he said.

      Theofilos said the synod is now reviewing all business transactions.

      Acknowledging that the church was plagued in the
      past by corruption and mismanagement, he said
      that now "there is transparency concerning the administration and finances."

      Israel only recognized Theofilos in December,
      more than two years after he was installed by his
      flock. During the period of limbo, Irineos
      refused to step down or leave his official
      residence. He has since been demoted to monk.

      Israel's long delay in ratifying his appointment
      was a "grave mistake," Theofilos said.

      Yet Theofilos is not a rebel — his church depends
      on a delicate balancing act in dealing with the
      three governments in the Holy Land. "The
      patriarchate ... emerges as a state within a
      state, as an entity, a very powerful entity,
      spiritual entity but it is an entity which lives
      on the ground and not in the clouds," he said.

      He has also addressed complaints by Palestinian
      Christians that they are being kept out of
      positions of authority in the church. He has
      appointed an Arab clergyman as his spokesman,
      promoted another to archbishop, and appointed a third to the 18-member synod.

      Palestinian Christians say Theofilos has helped
      restore the church's tainted image.

      "People (once) were embarrassed to say they were
      Orthodox," said Dimitri Diliani, who had been
      among those pushing to remove the previous
      patriarch. "He (Theofilos) managed to go through
      a thorny road with nobody mad at him by adhering to being a head of a church."
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