JERUSALEM – The fate of Jerusalem’s beleaguered Greek Orthodox patriarch was shrouded in confusion Saturday, with rebel clergy saying he had been fired but supporters insisting he was still in charge.
Patriarch Irineos I returned to his living quarters in Jerusalem’s Old City before dawn Saturday, hours after senior church officials said they had voted to dismiss him for his alleged role in a controversial property deal.
Other clergymen said Friday’s decision was not valid.
The patriarch can only be ousted by the 17-member Synod, the church’s highest decision-making body. The patriarch’s supporters said only he can convene the Synod, and that Friday’s vote among top clergy, including members of the Synod, was held at a meeting not called by Irineos.
Rebel clergy said they decided to dismiss Irineos because of allegations he was involved in leasing church property to Jewish settlement groups in east Jerusalem, the sector claimed by the Palestinians as a future capital. A church spokesman, Archmandrite Atallah Hannah, said an acting patriarch would be elected next week.
However, another clergyman, Archmandrite Milinios Bassal, said only Jordan’s attorney general could decide whether Friday’s decision was valid, and that until he has done so, the patriarch remains in charge.
The church complies with a 1958 Jordanian law that bans any sale of church land and property. Jordan ruled east Jerusalem and the West Bank until Israel seized the territories in the 1967 Middle East War. Israel has since annexed east Jerusalem.
Jordan renounced its claims to east Jerusalem in 1988, but maintains custody of shrines there.
On Thursday, Jordan said it would accept the dismissal of the patriarch if two-thirds of Synod members backed the decision. It was not clear how much support each side had.
Palestinians leader Mahmoud Abbas said the Palestinians were holding discussions with Jordanian officials on whether to accept the rebel clergy decision and withdraw recognition from Irineos. Church tradition holds that the ruling powers in the region must approve the church leader.
Palestinian officials met with Irineos on Saturday and he authorized them to take any necessary legal steps to cancel the land deals, said Palestinian Cabinet secretary Samir Huleileh.
Also, the Istanbul-based spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, sent a three-member team of senior clerics to try negotiate a solution to the crisis, church officials said.
Orthodox churches are autonomous, but Bartholomew is considered “first among equals” among Orthodox patriarchs and has previously intervened in past crises involving other Orthodox churches, such as during a schism in the Bulgarian Orthodox Church.