JERUSALEM (AP) – The Greek Orthodox Church accused
Israel of meddling Wednesday after Prime Minister
Ariel Sharon’s government disqualified one-third of
the candidates for the church’s next top clergyman in
the Holy Land.
In a letter signed by Israeli Justice Minister Meir
Sheetrit, five of the 15 candidates for election as
the region’s new Greek Orthodox patriarch were banned
for alleged security reasons, said Metropolitan
Isychios, one of the disqualified candidates. “The
Patriarchate condemns this unwelcome and unlawful
intrusion of the Israeli government into church
affairs, which serves undisclosed and suspicious
interests,” the church said in a press release.
Metropolitan Isychios said the church would ignore the
Israeli objections and proceed with the elections,
with all the candidates taking part.
The banned candidates included one of the
front-runners, Metropolitan Timotheos, who has served
for years as secretary and spokesman for the
Patriarchate in the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem’s
walled Old City. Metropolitan Isychios said the
security reasons cited in the letter were bogus. “If
I have done anything against Israel, let them arrest
me,” he told The Associated Press. The previous
patriarch, Diodoros I, died in December, at age 77.
The patriarch is elected by the 17 bishops of the Holy
Synod and priests from the Greek Orthodox
Patriarchate. The Holy Synod is made up of bishops
from the Greek Orthodox Church in Jordan, Israel and
the Palestinian Authority. Under a law dating back to
Byzantine Emperor Justinian, who ruled in the 6th
century, the government in the Holy Land has the right
to approve or disqualify candidates for the office of
patriarch. The present list was submitted to the
governments of Israel and Jordan, as well as the
Palestinian Authority. Jordan and the Palestinian
Authority made no deletions. Israeli officials said
they had the right to disqualify candidates.
Raanan Levy, an adviser to Sharon, said: “Israel is
sovereign in Jerusalem and the reasons have to do with
Israel’s interests in Jerusalem.” He would not
elaborate. Shmuel Eviatar, an adviser to Jerusalem
Mayor Ehud Olmert, also said Israel acted within its
rights. “Israel, as the sovereign power in Jerusalem,
has the right to disqualify any candidate whom it does
not regard as suitable to be head of the biggest and
most ancient church in this country,” he said.
According to church officials, there are about 100,000
Greek Orthodox faithful in the Holy Land. The
Palestinians reject Israeli exclusive sovereignty in
Jerusalem and demand the right to establish their
capital in the traditionally Arab eastern sector of
the city. A senior church official said Israel’s
intervention violated the freedom of Christian
communities in the Holy Land and that this would be
made clear to Sharon in writing.