Greece: Orthodox Patriarch demands Israeli government recognition

The newly-appointed head of the Greek Orthodox Church in the Holy Land has filed suit in the Israeli Supreme Court, demanding that Israel recognize his status as patriarch. Archbishop Aristarchous, chief secretary of the church in Jerusalem, said the petition was filed Wednesday, but he could not confirm a newspaper report accusing Israel of trying to use the promise of recognition to pressure him to approve a controversial lease of Jerusalem church property to Jewish groups.

Israeli court and Justice Ministry officials refused to comment on the suit.

Former Patriarch Irineos was dismissed in May after months of turmoil over alleged deals turning over to Jewish nationalist groups the leases of property inhabited by Palestinians in east Jerusalem, which Palestinians claim for the capital of a future state.

His successor, Patriarch Theofilos, was selected in August to replace an interim administration installed after a rare crisis summit of world Orthodox leaders. The appointment of a patriarch needs formal recognition by Palestinians, Jordan and Israel.

Theofilos has so far been accepted by Jordan and the Palestinian leadership.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said the recognition issue was being dealt with by an interministerial committee, "which has not yet finalized its conclusions."

The Haaretz daily said Theofilos' suit accuses Israel of insisting Theofilos approve the same real estate deals that led to Irineos' overthrow or face further delays in recognition.

It quotes the court petition as saying that under Irineos, leases for prime property in Jerusalem's Old City were assigned to Jewish clients at bargain prices.

The church has launched an internal probe to determine whether Irineos agreed to any other property deals with Jewish groups that could anger the church's mostly Palestinian congregation across Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian territories.

Property dealings are highly sensitive to the Greek Orthodox Church, one of the major land owners in the Holy Land, which gives it influence far beyond its 40,000-member flock. Among the church's high-profile holdings are historic buildings in the Old City, prime real estate elsewhere in Jerusalem and land under some Israeli government buildings. A.M.