The Greek Orthodox patriarch in the Holy Land said Thursday he was unaware of an alleged sale of prime church property in Jerusalem to Jewish groups that are trying to expand their hold on Palestinian neighborhoods in the disputed city.
Reports of the sale last week caused an uproar, with Palestinian Christians accusing the patriarch, Irineos I, of involvement in the transaction and demanding he step down. In response, church officials were dispatched from Athens to investigate the affair, and Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia announced a separate probe.
The Greek Orthodox Church is one of the largest landowners in the Holy Land, and owns prime property in east Jerusalem, the traditionally Arab sector claimed by the Palestinians as a capital. The properties allegedly sold to Jewish investors include the Imperial Hotel and several shops near Jaffa Gate in the Old City in east Jerusalem.
The patriarch, speaking through a translator, told a news conference Thursday that only the church's synod had the authority to sell property. Irineos said he was not involved in any sale and had no knowledge of such a transaction. "Nobody came and claimed property ownership, and even if somebody claims he bought it ... it needs the approval of the Holy Synod," he said. "Even the patriarch himself cannot sell it."
Thursday's news conference marked the first time the patriarch has spoken publicly about the allegations.
The sale was reportedly made by Nikos Papadimas, a financial officer of the church who vanished three months ago. The patriarch said Papadimas had the authority to lease, but not to sell land. He was evasive when asked whether Papadimas was allowed to sign long-term leases.
The Israeli daily Maariv reported last week that Papadimas was the patriarch's right-hand man, and managed the churches vast land holdings and financial affairs.
A Greek prosecutor reportedly is seeking a European arrest warrant against Papadimas and his wife on charges of embezzling church funds.
Irineos said Thursday that if there was indeed a sale, the church would try to revoke it.
Palestinian Christians have accused the Greek Orthodox Church of betraying the Palestinian cause. Earlier this week, dozens of Palestinian Christians held a demonstration and demanded the patriarch's resignation.
AMY TEIBEL Associated Press