March 8, 2011

Irenaeus I Unwilling or Unable to Leave Confinement?

Isabel Kershner
March 7, 2011
The New York Times

Like a figure in a medieval drama, the monk Irenaeus I has been cloistered for the last three years in a third-floor apartment in the compound of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate high above a narrow, bustling alleyway of Jerusalem’s Old City, unwilling or unable to leave.

Appearing at his barred window one recent morning, clad in the traditional black garb of the Greek Orthodox priesthood, Irenaeus mouthed greetings to some visitors in the street below and waved a silver cross in a silent blessing.

Irenaeus was once the patriarch of Jerusalem, the highest authority of this ancient branch of the Orthodox Church, until he was ousted from his position in 2005. His refusal to recognize the authority of his successor, Theophilos III, seems to be the reason for his current ordeal.

Yet the warring rivals and their counsels disagree on the question of how much Irenaeus’s confinement has been forced upon him, and how much it is by his own design. Irenaeus, 71, refuses to leave the apartment because, he says, he has no guarantee that he will be allowed to return. Until this is no longer in question, he says, communicating by fax and employing the majestic plural, “in essence, they compel us to remain within our cell.”

Daniel Robbins, a Jerusalem lawyer who is representing Irenaeus in this regard and in the additional matter of some icons in Irenaeus’s apartment that Theophilos wants, said, “Nothing here is self-imposed.”

Irenaeus “will be homeless” if he leaves the compound, Mr. Robbins said. “He has no property.”

Representatives of Theophilos, however, argue that Irenaeus is a captive by choice.

“The fact that he has decided to lock himself up in the apartment is his prerogative,” said Nadir Mughrabi, an adviser to the patriarchate. “Nobody is asking him to leave.” If he were to leave the compound, Mr. Mughrabi said, “there is no decision to stop him from coming back.”

This Byzantine saga mirrors the struggles over politics and real estate that have bedeviled the Holy Land for centuries. Competing interests within the church’s realm, which includes Israel, Jordan and, now, the Palestinian Authority, have only sharpened what one local member of the community described as a hundred years of infighting and intrigue.

Irenaeus was elected in 2001 as the patriarch of Jerusalem, normally a position for life. He was removed four years later amid allegations of shady property deals. Among other things, he was accused of selling long-term leases on prime properties owned by the patriarchate inside the Old City — in territory that Israel annexed after the 1967 war, but where the Palestinians and most of the world do not recognize Israeli sovereignty — to foreign companies acting as fronts for a Jewish settlers group.

As the owner of valuable tracts of land in the region, including prized locations in central Jerusalem, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem has long wielded power disproportionate to the size of its flock. Israel’s official prime minister’s residence is on Greek Orthodox land.

Defenders of Irenaeus say that he was manipulated by stronger forces on the property deals, which are being contested in the Israeli courts.

Elias Khoury, a Greek Orthodox lawyer in Jerusalem, was one of three members of a committee appointed by the Palestinian Authority to investigate the land deals. The commission concluded that Irenaeus had been misled and was the victim of a conspiracy, Mr. Khoury said.

As a result, Mr. Khoury suggested, Theophilos may have good reason to fear Irenaeus and keep him isolated. Irenaeus enjoyed 24-hour protection from the Israeli police, and with it free movement, until Israel finally recognized Theophilos’s election in the spring of 2007. The appointment has also been ratified by the governments of Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, as required by law and tradition.

Since then, Irenaeus, who was born on the Greek island of Samos and first came to the Patriarchate of Jerusalem at the age of 13, has remained in near total seclusion.

Life in the patriarchate compound is run along the lines of a strict order, and a doorman guards the entrance. A gate leading from the courtyard to Irenaeus’s apartment is usually locked, and he does not have the key. Mr. Robbins, his lawyer, has been able to visit him three times in recent months, but only with a court order.

For food and medicine, Irenaeus says he relies on the good will of a local resident — a Muslim who runs a nearby grocery store, and who places supplies in a basket that Irenaeus lowers to the street at night from a rooftop terrace abutting his apartment.

Mr. Mughrabi said this, too, was “a hundred percent his own doing.” Like the dozens of other priests who reside in the compound, Mr. Mughrabi said, Irenaeus is on the list to receive food from the central kitchen, but “he has chosen to make other arrangements.”

Irenaeus described his confinement as a kind of “martyrdom” imposed by hostile forces “aiming for our psychological and bodily annihilation.” It was the result of a scheme by interest groups, he said, that was “diabolical in its conception.”

He placed sole responsibility for his situation on Theophilos, his nemesis, “to whom ecclesiastical history will ascribe the name traitor!”

For many local members of the church, the goings-on in the patriarchate, particularly the land issues, have merely confirmed long-held grievances.

“The problem is that the patriarchs come from Greece,” said Khaled Ikhleif, a Palestinian taxi driver from Bethlehem in the West Bank. “They are foreign, not Arab, and they do not understand our problems.”

Mr. Ikhleif was attending epiphany celebrations at Qasr al-Yahud, a spot on the Jordan River where Jesus was said to have been baptized. The site, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, is in a border area surrounded by minefields. After a procession and a ceremony led by Theophilos, pilgrims immersed themselves in the opaque, khaki-color water, momentarily oblivious to all dissension and discord.