As Patriarch Theophilos III, head of the Greek Orthodox Church of Jerusalem, led a procession towards the Church of the Nativity in the occupied West Bank city of Bethlehem last Christmas Eve, he was greeted by Palestinian protesters, who shouted “traitor” and “unworthy” at him. This was the third year in a row that the Greek born leader of the Eastern Orthodox churches in Palestine, Jordan, and Israel had found himself in the midst of controversy during the sacred event. The protests, and subsequent boycott, of Patriarch Theophilos’s religious services are the result of revelations about his role in the sale of church-owned land to Ateret Cohanim: an Israeli organization that has worked for years to evict Palestinians from their homes and shops in the Old City of Jerusalem. The patriarch’s decision to sell land, which has historically belonged to the Palestinian people, to a hardline Zionist group is a brutal affront to the convictions and needs of most of the members of his church, who are overwhelmingly Arab. According to Jalal Barham, a local Orthodox community leader in Palestine:
The biggest issue we are facing with this patriarch is the selling of land in Israel’s interest. Because we know as Palestinians that the conflict between us and Israel is about the land. We are struggling for reform of the church and of the patriarch—to free the church from Greek dominance over the church and its money and administration.
This is why an number Palestinian Orthodox groups, and even the PLO, have decided to ostracize Patriarch Theophilos.
Of course, such behaviour by the Jerusalem patriarchate’s hierarchy is nothing new. Sadly, the Orthodox Church, which is the second-largest landowner in the region—right after Israel itself—has a history of undermining Palestinian national ambitions by doing business with Israel. For instance, Patriarch Theophilos’s predecessor, Irenaios Skopelitis, found himself dismissed as patriarch for selling land in the Old City to the same Israeli organization, Ateret Cohanim, who at the time used front organizations for the dealings. Moreover, Irenaios’s removal only took place because the backlash from the Palestinian Orthodox community became so strong that even church officials could no longer ignore it. However, the truth is that such acts are not merely the result of a couple of “bad apples” leading the church, but instead stem directly from the fact that Palestinians have little say in the administration of their own Orthodox Church, which since Ottoman times has been controlled by Greeks who seem to have no interest in the struggles or ambitions of the Arabs.
The sad reality is that the Orthodox Church of Jerusalem is under what is essentially a Greek colonial rule. This is so much the case that its hierarchs have been known to appeal to Athens during disputes with the Palestinian National Authority (PNA). Further, while many of the church’s priests, and the overwhelming majority of its laity, are Arab, the hierarchy is almost exclusively Greek. In fact, out of its nineteen current bishops, only one is Palestinian, while the rest are foreign-born Greeks. It is also worth noting that the lone Palestinian hierarch, Archbishop Atallah Hanna, is the only bishop notable for his devotion to the Palestinian cause, which has been manifested through his sacrificial opposition towards the Israeli oppression of his people. Archbishop Atallah’s consciousness of social issues because of his Palestinian experience is so strong that he even recently voiced his support for the current movement against racism in the US—a rare act from an Orthodox bishop from anywhere. Yet, most of the hierarchs of the Jerusalem patriarchate appear to be a part of their own exclusive Greek “club,” and seem to be often willing to put aside the needs of their flock in exchange for a working relationship with the Israeli authorities.
According to Al Jazeera, secret tape recordings have revealed that Ateret Cohanim has on a number of occasions informed Orthodox officials that Israel would only approve the appointment of men to the patriarchal throne who are willing to sell land to the group. This puts patriarchs, and perhaps other bishops, in a comprised position immediately upon taking power. Moreover, it also seems that Israel knows how to perpetually keep the church hierarchy in check. For instance, when the scandal of Metropolitan Isichios’s affair with a trans woman became fodder for the press a few years back—for which he was temporarily suspended by the church—many suspected the Israeli authorities of being involved in the release of the incriminating footage. Since Metropolitan Isichios had long been a close confidant of Patriarch Theophilos, Israel may have been sending the church a message by publicly airing the hierarch’s dirty laundry. Of course, if more authentic believing Arabs were allowed into the hierarchy, as opposed to European careerists, perhaps the church would not have to concern itself with such things.
Beyond the obvious positional and financial motivations for the Greek bishops to sell Palestinian land to Israel, it is likely also the case that church leaders see the potential recognition of a Palestinian state as a threat to their power. The reason for this is that in nearly every nation where the Orthodox Church holds a majority, or at least a significant minority, of the population as members, an indigenized church has come into being—although not usually without controversy. Moreover, these churches use either the local language, or at least a similar form of it, for services, and the clergy themselves are overwhelmingly drawn from the local population. For instance, the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch, whose patriarch is centred in Damascus, has been culturally Arab in nearly every facet of church life since the uprising in the late nineteenth century against Greek control succeeded in installing an Arab as head of the church. This is why the church of Antioch in the Middle East is strongly connected to the minds and hearts of its members. However, Palestinian Orthodox churches still have to fight in order to retain or rediscover their Arab characteristics. In fact, the overt racism of the Jerusalem patriarchate’s leadership towards Arabs was one of the main reasons as to why other Christian churches, e.g. Melkite, Protestant etc., were able to convert so many Orthodox in the region.
The Orthodox Church of Jerusalem’s behaviour when it comes to Palestinian nationalism and Arab culture is completely contrary to the feelings of the vast majority of its members. Orthodox Palestinians, like all Palestinians, have suffered greatly from the Israeli occupation, with many losing their homes, livelihoods, and, at times, even their very lives because of it. Moreover, Orthodox Palestinians have often been at the forefront in the fight for a Palestinian nation. For instance, one of the most famous Palestinian nationalists, and founder of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), was the Greek Orthodox George Habash. Thus, the Jerusalem patriarchate’s undermining of the Palestinian cause is a disgrace and embarrassment for its faithful.
The truth is that a church in Palestine, Jordan, and Israel that is completely devoted to the culture and needs of its Arab members would become a living church that could, and would, help lead in the fight for freedom and justice against the Israeli occupation. However, in order for that to take place, the patriarch, as well as the rest of the bishops, must be chosen from the local Arab population. If the Orthodox Church of Jerusalem continues to be controlled by foreign-born Greeks, who are clearly incapable of empathizing with the Palestinian struggle, it will soon find itself completely isolated and irrelevant.