Wednesday, May 16, 2007

what a mess!

For those of you who haven't followed this issue so far, let me summarize briefly the situation. Sometime more than two years ago, some prime real estate in East Jerusalem was sold. Well, it wasn't exactly sold--it was leased for 99 years. The land belonged to the Orthodox Patriarchate, which is probably the largest landowner in Palestine and also leases, among other things, the ground on which the Israeli Knesset sits. The deal had been done in secret, through intermediaries, but when the dust settled, it appeared that a man close to then-Patriarch Irineos was responsible, and the buyers were rabid Zionists who presumably wanted yet another foothold in Arab territory. Irineos was subsequently removed from office by his own diocese (to the extent possible when he refused to assemble the synod) and by the heads of the other autocephalous Orthodox churches. A replacement was installed, Theophilos III, and everyone lived happily ever after.

No, it's not an American story--it's a Palestinian one. Things change slowly in the Orthodox Church, and although the Ottoman Empire has been dead for some time now, the Jerusalem Patriarchate is still bound by an old Ottoman law, according to which the civil authority has veto power over any new patriarchal appointment. This next part is going to sound a bit weird--that's not so bad, if the civil authority is the Ottoman Empire. (I told you it was a Palestinian story.) But today, the canonical territory of the JP spans three civil domains--Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian Authority. If you need to, go back and re-read what precipitated this whole situation. Does anyone really expect that those three are going to reach a consensus? For the past two years, Jerusalem, in addition to the usual confusion of having pretty much every other Christian camp represented, has had two Orthodox patriarchs--the one recognized by his diocese and the rest of the Orthodox world, and the one who says he never did anything wrong and refuses to step down. And because the Israeli government still hasn't decided on the matter, he regularly shows up for stuff, with Israeli police escort.

Well, that was a pleasant couple of years. So what's changed now? This week, the Jordanian government withdrew its support for Theophilos, reportedly because he hasn't acted with enough force to overturn the land deal that started the whole mess. Now, I'm not there--I have no particular connection to this situation. I'm just a guy who reads the news and whose heart aches for the Orthodox Christians in Palestine. I don't know exactly what, if anything, Theofilos has done about the land deal, or even if there's anything that can be done at this point. But clearly a line has been drawn in the sand over there, and it's completely political. On one hand, Israel has made it rather clear that even appointing a different patriarch over this issue, regardless of how zealous he is for the Arab cause, is not going to get their approval. On the other hand, Jordan doesn't seem happy with anything less than decisive action.

Where can the JP possibly go from here? Reinstate Irineos? Jordan would never approve, and they'd have mutiny from the people. Keep Theofilos? How can he do his job without approval from any of the governments in question? (I haven't heard so far whether the PA will also withdraw, but it was rumored last week.) Appoint a new patriarch? How? If the new patriarch is less activist on the land deal than Theofilos, Jordan will probably not like him. But anything else, even if he represents no significant change on the issue, will be a negative move from Israel's perspective, because it will be a response to Jordan's desires. Add to all this the ongoing desire for an Arab patriarch (which I'm inclined to agree would probably not be the best move at this point, since a Greek patriarch is better positioned to deal with Israel), and finding a solution seems pretty hopeless.

I don't know what the answer is. Is it possible to disentangle from the civil governments in the region and let the Church just do whatever it's going to do? (I suspect it's much more complicated than that, especially since a large part of what the Patriarchate is there for is to maintain the holy sites.) Should the JP split along the national boundaries that exist? But what would that even mean? Given the size of the Orthodox population, three autocephalous churches seems excessive. If there were two, which would include the West Bank? Which would include Gaza? And the big question, which would include East Jerusalem? For that matter, would it even solve anything? What would happen to the Arab Christians under an Israeli church, where any viable patriarch must play ball with a hostile government? And that's the biggest question in all of this. Palestinian Christians have enough problems to deal with--what's to become of them?

Lord, have mercy!


Jim N. said...

What a mess...

Jim N. said...

I actually didn't even notice the title of your post. No pun intended in the my redundant remark! :)