Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Jerusalem continue to attract the attention of Palestinians, Jordanians and Greeks alike.

The decision by more than two thirds of the Holy Synod of the Church to expel Patriarch Irineos I from his position is the first in the church’s 2,000 year history. No one knows what will happen now that the name of the patriarch has been struck out of the prayers of all the faithful throughout Jordan and Palestine and the synod has chosen a committee of three bishops to run the affairs of the church until a new patriarch is elected.

On the surface, the expulsion of the Greek patriarch by fellow Greek bishops came after an Israeli newspaper revealed that the patriarch had given power of attorney to one of his aides who then sold (or leased for a long term) for millions of dollars, major real estate belonging to the church in the Jaffa Gate area to a radical Jewish settler group.

In their three-page strongly worded statement of renunciation, the bishops refer to the land case in passing, but deal much more with a list of what they call transgressions by Irineos, including lying, deceit, defaming fellow priests, taking over the financial department of the church and complete lack of transparency. In one paragraph, the bishops call the man they had elected to the highest position as “having a sick mentality”.

The Orthodox Church, the mother of all Christian churches in the Holy Land, is a very strange entity. Palestinian Christians consider it the last bastion of religious colonialism in the Holy Land. While all the faithful are Arab, its entire senior clergy, including every single member of the synod, is made up of Greek citizens.

Church history talks about the last Arab Christian patriarch, Patriarch Atallah, having been replaced in 1492 by a sharp-tongued fund-raising Greek bishop who had disguised his nationality until being elected and then cleaned up the church of Arab bishops and imported in their place Greek nationals who have ruled the church ever since.

The unprecedented demise of the present patriarch had its own Greek connection. The present strongly secular government in Greece was unhappy with him and became furious when the land sale became known. It understood its implications both at the level of Christian-Muslim relations and at that of Greek-Palestinian relations.

The withdrawal of moral and, the more important, financial support to Irineos I followed by the protests, during the Easter holidays, of the Christian Arab community in Palestine, Israel and Jordan left most bishops with little choice but to withdraw their confidence in their leader.

Israel’s position vis-à-vis this patriarch, the Orthodox Church and Christians living under its control has never been easy. Most observers feel that the two-year delay by Israel to recognize the patriarch ended when he agreed to make a number of concessions to the Israelis. Many believe that the sale of the Jaffa Gate properties and slowing down the case regarding the Jewish settlers’ takeover of the St. John’s Convent, overlooking the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, was part of the deal that brought the Israeli recognition of the patriarch.

Ironically, it seems to have also brought him down. Many Greek priests are also are under strict control, as Israel doesn’t provide permanent visas to many of them, often allowing them in the country as tourists. The reluctance to provide clergy visas is, however, not limited to the Orthodox denomination. Other clergy has regularly complained about the Israeli authorities’ policy to reduce the number of clergy visas even though Jerusalem is the cradle of Christianity.

Reverend Alex Awad, pastor of the East Jerusalem Baptist Church, and his wife Brenda complained this week that they have been on a tourist visa for the past 16 months, often having to leave the country and return every three months so as not to overstay their visa. Local Christians have also complained that Israel rarely gives them permission to go to the holy places in Jerusalem. During the recent Easter holidays, Christians were given a one-day pass only. Some were even turned back because the Israelis feared that Orthodox Palestinians will protest that Irineos I presides over the religious festivities.

Nevertheless, the local Christian Orthodox community has naturally been revitalized by this case. The leading Arab clergyman who will most likely become a bishop (now that he reached the age of 40) is Archimandrite Atallah Hanna; he has become a local hero, appearing in the local and Arab satellite media on almost daily basis.

Jordan and, to a lesser degree, the Palestinian Authority, are directly responsible for the legal recognition of the church’s hierarchy. According to the 1958 Jordanian Law, the patriarch must be a Jordanian citizen and must be able to read, write and speak Arabic. The same law also stipulates that the synod should include Arab bishops and that a mixed council of Arab Orthodox lay people and church officials be formed to run the affairs of the church. Previous patriarchs have failed to elevate Arab bishops, leaving the synod to Greek monopoly.

* Daoud Kuttab is director of the Institute of Modern Media at Al Quds University in Ramallah.