The throne room of Jerusalem's Greek Orthodox Patriarch in the Old City's Christian Quarter is at the heart of a maze of tunnels, sandstone stairways, narrow passages and courtyards bursting with almond blossom. Each night at 10 p.m., in a practice that dates back centuries, the priests of the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulcher lock themselves into their ancient warren, shutting out the iniquitous world beyond their walls. Lately, though, they've concluded the biggest threat lies within Patriarch Eirinaios I, who's at the center of a labyrinthine religious and legal scandal involving the alleged lease of Church properties in an Arab area of the Old City to Jewish investors.
Eirinaios' opponents within the Greek Orthodox Church accuse him of shady financial dealings, while his Palestinian flock complains that the leases give Israel a politically charged foothold in an Arab neighborhood of Jerusalem. The scandal has divided the Church which owns some of the most important Christian shrines in Israel between a few loyalist bishops and a rebel group led by Eirinaios' former right-hand man, Bishop Aristarchos of Constantini, which wants Eirinaios out. It has also provided a pretext for local Palestinian adherents to try to wrest control of the Orthodox Church from its Greek hierarchy. At an extraordinary crisis meeting in Istanbul last week, world Orthodox leaders voted to sever ties with Eirinaios, paving the way for the election of a new Patriarch in Jerusalem. But Eirinaios, who stormed out of the Istanbul meeting, shows no signs of relinquishing his throne. His intransigence, experts fear, may create a schism in the Jerusalem Patriarchate. "The Patriarchate has never endured a crisis of this magnitude," says George Moustakis, a theology professor at the American College of Greece in Athens. "The flock has lost faith in [Eirinaios]."
Eirinaios, 66, is wreathed in mystery and rumor. Born Emmanuel Skopelitis on the Greek island of Samos, he was elected Patriarch in 2001. During a bitter election campaign, local newspapers ran photos purporting to show Eirinaios' main rival, Metropolitan Timothy of Vestra, engaging in sex acts with several men. Timothy's supporters say the photos were doctored, and blame the Eirinaios camp. Israel's Cabinet refused for almost three years to ratify the election because of accusations that Eirinaios wrote an anti-Semitic letter to the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat; Eirinaios says the letter was a forgery. In March, an Israeli court ruled that Eirinaios was elected with covert aid from a shady Greek intelligence informant arrested in April on charges of drug trafficking.
The current uproar began in March when an Israeli newspaper claimed the Patriarchate had leased properties in Omar Ibn al-Khattab Square, just inside the Old City's Jaffa Gate, to Jewish investors. That inflames Palestinians because they believe the Old City should one day become part of a Palestinian state. Israeli security officials tell Time that the Patriarchate-owned New Imperial Hotel and Petra Hotel were leased through a U.S. shell company, perhaps by Ateret Cohanim, a nationalist Israeli group that buys properties in Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem to prevent them being turned over to the Palestinians in future peace talks. Ateret Cohanim officials deny they have leased the buildings, but reports of a deal were enough to provoke scrutiny of the Patriarchate's finances by the Greek government as well as nationalist rage from Palestinians.
The Patriarchate is no stranger to controversial land deals. It owns about 4,047 hectares in Israel, including the land on which a number of Israeli neighborhoods of Jerusalem are built. That makes it the country's largest landowner, apart from institutions linked to the state. A high-ranking Greek Orthodox priest says the leases are necessary to cover the Patriarchate's
$2 million annual operating costs, but adds that deals in Jerusalem's Old City a quarter of which is owned by the Church have always been avoided because of the site's sensitive political nature.