Gov’t awaits clarification on alleged Jerusalem land sale

AMMAN — The government on Wednesday said it has asked the Greek Orthodox patriarch of Jerusalem to clarify his position on “documented evidence” that the patriarchate was involved in at least 12 transactions to sell or lease church property.

A senior official said the patriarch now has a “window of opportunity” to amend the current situation, which prompted the  government to revoke recognition of Patriarch Theophilus III.

“This government decision did not take effect yet as it is still awaiting a Royal Decree to seal it,” the official said.

“There is serious documented evidence that suggests Patriarch Theophilus III or attorneys acting on his behalf, with or without his knowledge, are involved in at least 12 transactions to sell or lease church land and assets,” the official said.

“The government is currently in talks with concerned parties, including the Greek government, to commit the patriarch and the Holy Synod to guarantee that no lease or sale of church assets has taken place within Jerusalem thus far and there will never be any such transactions during his tenure.”

In addition, Theophilus “must reaffirm commitments made under documents signed with Jordan in August 2005 shortly before his appointment in which he pledged to honour the agreement to the letter”.

The government’s decision to revoke recognition of Theophilus last month for “ignoring several warnings was meant to send a clear message that Jordan was disappointed with his performance and serious about upholding a 1958 law which bans the sale of any church land or property in Jerusalem.”

The area was under Jordan’s jurisdiction until 1967 when Israel seized the territories and annexed East Jerusalem.

The Kingdom became the custdodian of affairs for Christian and Islamic holy shrines in the holy city under the 1994 peace treaty with the Jewish state.

“The Jordanian government has no interest in interfering in the internal affairs of the Orthodox Church … it is our responsibility, however, to protect the interests of the church, the followers of the church in Jordan and to protect Jerusalem,” another offical said yesterday.

Theophilus’ predecessor Irineos I was ousted in May 2005 over claims of being involved in the unsanctioned sale of church property, including two hotels, to an Israeli company.

The church, one of the largest property owners in Jerusalem, possesses prime real estate inside the old walled city.

Theophilus had also agreed to work to annul any property deals made by Irineos or powers of attorney.

Among obligations the patriarch has failed to act on  — now overshadowed by the new allegations  —  was compiling a list of church assets to be presented to the government and the appointment of two Arab bishops in the Holy Synod — the Greek Orthodox community’s highest decision-making body.

Under church laws, the patriarch must have the approval of Jordan, the Palestinian Authority and Israel. “If a Royal Decree is issued, the Palestinian side is most likely to follow suit,” a source said, adding: “Without the three sides’ approval in essence he cannot function.”

Israel has yet to recognise Theophilus two years after he was appointed.

The Greek government has expressed “serious concern” over Jordan’s decision to revoke recognition of the patriarch.

The World Council of Churches (WCC) also requested the government to reconsider its decision. In a May 18 letter to Prime Minister Marouf Bakhit, WCC Secretary General Samuel Kobia said there is “fear that such a decision might lead to a division among the Orthodox Christian community in Jordan and Palestine with negative ecclesial and socio-political consequences”.

Efforts are being made to resolve the issue before a scheduled mid-June visit to Jordan by Greek Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis.

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