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Last Updated: Wednesday, 25 May, 2005, 13:47 GMT 14:47 UK
Autumn of a Patriarch
By Jonny Dymond
BBC News, Jerusalem

As tangled tales go, the crisis in Jerusalem and the meeting it has precipitated in Istanbul do not get much better.

Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Irineos I
Patriarch Irineos is the religious leader of 100,000 Christians

There is the land that is owned by the Greek Orthodox Church but which is integral to a "final settlement" of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

There is the religious leader who is no longer recognised as such by many in his own Church but who still calls himself the Patriarch of Jerusalem, Palestine, Syria, beyond the Jordan River, Canaa of Galilee and Holy Zion.

And there is the rather tricky question of whether the Church, which claims authority over the Orthodox world - the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul, has the authority to sack the leader of another Orthodox Church.

The sale of three properties in the Old City of Jerusalem kicked off this affair.

The Greek Orthodox Church owned them as it owns much land in the city, both old and new. The properties - two hotels and some shops - are just inside the Jaffa Gate, on the north side of Omar Ibn al-Khattab Square.

Palestinian outrage

Jaffa Gate is not only one of the most popular entry points to the Old City, but it is also the main entrance to the Christian quarter of the city.

As such it was thought, if and when a final settlement came around, that it would become part of the Palestinian controlled zone of the Old City; access to the Jewish quarter would have had to be negotiated.

Now that 198-year leases to part of the square have been sold to anonymous Jewish investors, the concern is that the new owners may attempt to create a Jewish presence in a traditionally Arab area and impede the creation of a Palestinian-controlled zone in the Old City.

In the somewhat exclusive vocabulary of the peace process this is known as "facts on the ground" - the Church has in the past sold land that has subsequently had settlements built upon it.

Controversial cleric

The role of the Patriarch, Irineos I, is murky.

He has declared the sale void, but it was carried out with his authority, to the fury of much of his congregation and senior clergy and to the consternation of Palestinian leaders. Irineos is a figure to which controversy appears to be attracted.

Orthodox Church leaders in Istanbul
Leaders from across the Orthodox world met for the Istanbul synod

Irineos' senior clergy have voted him out of office, but he insists that he is still the Patriarch.

And so the summons from Istanbul has come, not just for him but for patriarchs from across the Orthodox world.

Representatives from as far afield as Russia, Georgia, Finland and Estonia will gather to try and decide upon Patriarch Irineos' fate.

The office of the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I said that either the Patriarch would be asked to step down or a commission of inquiry would be set up.

But the Ecumenical Patriarch knew that it would find it difficult - probably impossible - to impose its will upon Patriarch Irineos.

Theory v reality

The Ecumenical Patriarch is in theory the leader of all the Orthodox Churches; it makes frequent reference to canonical law when referring to its place amongst the Orthodox Churches of the law.

In theory the church in Constantinople - now Istanbul - has the power to judge the clergy of other Patriarchates.

Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Irineos I
Irineos may yet have the capacity for more surprises

But the reality is somewhat different.

The power of the Ecumenical Church in Istanbul is waning. And even if it were not, the world Orthodox Church is not run like a global company with an HQ in Istanbul.

The Jerusalem Patriarchate has a relationship with the Ecumenical Patriarchate, but it does see itself as subservient to it.

In the event, the Istanbul meeting agreed to refuse to recognise Irineos' authority as patriarch of Jerusalem.

If Patriarch Irineos is stunningly stubborn he may cling on, just as he has defied the verdict of his colleagues in Jerusalem. Then the crisis that is devouring the Patriarchate in the Holy Land would continue.

Outside observers however think that Irineos' end is near.

"If the other Patriarchs decide against him, I think he'll go," one senior religious figure said recently. The consensus appears to be that endgame has been reached.

But a figure as controversial as Patriarch Irineos I clearly has the power to surprise.

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