THE Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III of Jerusalem, met the Archbishop of Canterbury last week, in an effort to enlist his support in a growing conflict over land.
In July, 40 members of the Knesset signed a draft Bill that would enable the Israeli government to confiscate lands leased by churches to third parties. It followed the sale by the Patriarchate of land in West Jerusalem, leased to the Jewish National Fund in the 1950s, to an Israeli developer. Later that month, a court in Jerusalem ruled against the Patriarchate in a case concerning the sale of two hotels in Jerusalem’s Old City to right-wing settler groups. The Patriarchate argues that this was a fraudulent sale, and is planning to appeal.
In September, leaders of 13 Churches in Jerusalem, including the Anglican Archbishop in Jerusalem, the Most Revd Suheil Dawani, issued a statement of concern about “a systematic attempt to undermine the integrity of the Holy City of Jerusalem and the Holy Land, and to weaken the Christian presence” (News, 22 September).
Last month, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that, in recent years, the Patriarchate had been “quietly selling off its properties in various parts of the country to companies hidden in tax shelters, for sums so low one wonders whether the Church is trying to get rid of its assets at any cost”. The Patriarch is facing dissent from within his own Church over the sale of land.
Last week, the Patriarch told journalists said that “the ‘status quo’ rule that has guaranteed the rights of Jews, Christians, and Muslims to live, flourish, and thrive together in Jerusalem for centuries is in grave danger. . . If we do not act soon, it will be too late. And the outcome will be catastrophic.” He spoke of facing “false accusations, suspicion, and slander”. One of the elements of the status quo, which dates back to the 18th century, is that land owned by the Churches cannot be confiscated or taxed.
A spokesman for the Patriarch said last week that only two sales had been made, and that the development company was “a very large, quite legitimate Jewish development company”.
Both Haaretz and the Daily Telegraph quote an anonymous church source as saying that the Patriarch inherited huge debts on his enthronement in 2005, and that the Church relied on income from its property — it is reported to be the second-largest land owner in Israel — in order to survive.
The Patriarch’s predecessor, Ireneos I, was dismissed by the Holy Synod after he signed over power of attorney to sell properties (News, 9 December, 2005). One of the duties of patriarchs is to ensure that the ownership of Christian land does not change. After his enthronement, he promised to work to restore the property to Christian hands. His efforts have been criticised by the Jordanian government (News, 18 May, 2007), and caused conflict within his Church (News, 31 May, 2007).
During his latest tour, he met with the King of Jordan, the Greek and Palestinian Prime Ministers, and Pope Francis, who said afterwards that the status quo “must be defended and preserved”. A statement from the Archbishop of Canterbury this week said: “I join other Church leaders in calling for all parties to uphold the Status Quo and resist weakening it. I believe that a continued Christian presence in the Holy Land is of paramount importance.”
The Patriarch’s spokesman said last week that “lots of settler organisations are clearly trying to drive non-Jews out of the city”, and that they were prepared to “make life unbearable” for people in the process.