Greek Orthodox patriarch looks to the future
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."