Embattled Greek Orthodox patriarch asks Jordan’s help over Jerusalem land sales

Slammed by Israel and the Palestinians for selling property, Theophilus lll visits king in Amman; will also see the Pope in Rome, the Greek PM, and UK church leaders

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

The Greek Orthodox Patriarch (left) meets with Jordan's King Abdullah in Amman to seek support over controversy sparked by church land sales, October 18, 2017. (King of Jordans bureau).
The Greek Orthodox Patriarch (left) meets with Jordan's King Abdullah in Amman to seek support over controversy sparked by church land sales, October 18, 2017. (King of Jordans bureau).

Jerusalem’s Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilus lll on Wednesday embarked on the first leg of a series of overseas visits to garner support for what a spokesman described as “preservation of the status quo” in the city.

Under attack by Israelis for having sold church land off to anonymous investors and lambasted by Palestinians within his own church for selling property at all, Theophilus traveled to Jordan to meet with King Abdullah in Amman.

In his meeting, the patriarch was set to focus on two main concerns regarding the sale of properties belonging to the Greek Orthodox Church.

Firstly, Theophilus is seeking support for the church’s opposition to a Knesset bill initiated by Rachel Azaria (Kulanu) to transfer to the state, in return for compensation, tracts of lands that the church has sold to unknown private investors.

Theophilus has sold large portions of highly prized land in Jerusalem, Caesarea, Jaffa and Tiberias to private companies registered in offshore companies, the identities of whose owners are secret. The sales, revealed to the public in the course of July, have caused concern among Israeli lawmakers and officials over the possibility that enemy elements may have be involved in the purchase.

Conversely, Theophilus is trying to garner support against an August court ruling that upheld a separate set of controversial real estate deals struck between his predecessor Irenaios and an Israeli right-wing group for properties in Jerusalem’s Old City.

The properties bought by the Israeli group include two hotels just inside Jaffa Gate. Selling land in Jewish West Jerusalem is one thing; selling it in East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians see as the capital of a future Palestinian state, was sufficient to lead to the overthrow of Irenaios, and Theophilus has vowed to fight the ruling in the Supreme Court.

The Imperial Hotel at the Jaffa Gate, sold to the right-wing Ateret Cohanim organization and the subject of an appeal by the Greek Orthodox Patriarch. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

The patriarch will ask Jordan “to intervene in these serious interferences,” a statement from the church said.

A statement from King Abdullah published by the Jordanian news agency Petra said, “Any attempt to confiscate the properties of Christians in East Jerusalem is null and void and should be stopped.”

“Jordan, as part of the Hashemite custodianship of the Islamic and Christian holy sites in Jerusalem, will continue its efforts to preserve these sites and defend the properties of churches at all international forums and UNESCO sessions,” the statement added.

On October 23, Theophilus is scheduled to meet with the Pope at the Vatican, on October 29 with the Greek prime minister in Athens, and on November 1 with the Archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the Anglican church in the UK.

Last month, he met in Jerusalem with representatives of the National Council of Churches from the US.

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