JERUSALEM: Six years ago he was the patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church in the Holy Land. Today, Irineos I claims he is a prisoner in the church’s Old City compound in Jerusalem, trapped by the successor who ousted him in a dispute over the sale of church property to Israeli settlers.
Reporters who tried to gain access to the onetime leader of the Holy Land’s 100,000 Orthodox followers through the compound’s massive metal door were denied entry by church guards peering out through a crack.
Irineos spoke to The Associated Press on Thursday through a wireless microphone hoisted at the end of a rope to his roof — in the same black shopping bag supporters use nightly to deliver him groceries.
"They allow nobody out and nobody in to visit me," said Irineos. "They are afraid of the people because I’m loved by the people, and I love the people," he said into the microphone, peering over the edge of his roof.
It is a harsh comedown for a man who ruled his flock for four years as a revered spiritual figure.
Irineos said his successor, Theofilos III, will not allow attorneys, doctors or visitors to enter the home he has lived in for almost 40 years. He said he’s been trapped there for three years for refusing to concede the patriarchate.
Senior church officials denied he was under house arrest, but others say he is indeed being held against his will.
The church deposed Irineos in 2005 over allegations he signed a land deal handing over prime church properties to Jews who seek to increase their presence in predominantly Arab east Jerusalem, which Palestinians want for capital of a future state. Irineos refused to recognize his ouster.
Palestinians consider sale of land to Jews a serious crime, and most Orthodox Christians in Jerusalem are Palestinians.
Irineos maintains he was unaware of the transactions and did nothing wrong. A report commissioned by the Palestinian Authority in 2005 concluded he didn’t participate in any of the sales. When he was deposed, his defenders said the land sale charges were trumped up by his political opponents.
"I ask God every day to reveal the truth," he said. "There is no patriarch. I’m the patriarch."
Political feuds inside the Greek Orthodox community, always complicated, have turned vicious in recent years.
The number of Christians in the West Bank and Jerusalem has been dwindling for decades, as followers seek better economic opportunities elsewhere. Also, Christians speak of persecution by the Muslim majority in the West Bank, but always anonymously, fearing retribution.
Irineos’ replacement was not recognized by the three governments with jurisdiction over the patriarchate — Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority — until 2007.
A senior patriarchate official in Athens, Greece, denied Irineos was under house arrest, and several top aides to Theofilos declined to comment, other than to call Irineos a liar. Theofilos made public Christmas appearances Thursday in Bethlehem, but was unavailable for comment.
Two officials close to the Jerusalem patriarchate, one a prominent bishop who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, confirmed Theofilos is holding Irineos against his will over their feud and fears Irineos will try reclaiming his old position.
"The new patriarch is punishing the old one, keeping him behind closed doors to secure his position," said Marwan Tubasi, head of the Council of Arab Orthodox Organizations and a Palestinian Authority official who works closely with church leaders.
Irineos said he spends his isolated days praying, reading and writing. He still wears the traditional black garb and hat of Greek Orthodox clergy.
As Orthodox Christians celebrated Christmas Thursday, Irineos said he performed Mass by himself, banned from entering a church just a few steps away. He offered blessings to supporters using a cell phone — his primary link with the outside world.
From time to time supporters would shout greetings up to him from the street, and he responded with wishes for a happy new year.
A Palestinian Muslim from Jerusalem’s Old City, who called himself Abu Amar, said he has been sending bread, vegetables and water up to the former patriarch, hauling it up by rope, for almost three years. Despite their different religions, he feels a humanitarian urge to provide for Irineos’ needs.
"I had a good relationship with him, and I still do," Amar said. "I cannot neglect him."
Israeli police said they haven’t responded to the alleged imprisonment because no complaint has been filed. Irineos believes his plight should be handled within the church and not through police intervention, and the power to free and redeem Irineos lies in God’s hands, said Daniel Robbins, an attorney who was able to visit Irineos twice in recent weeks.
Robbins said while representing a different client in a case in which Irineos was a witness, a court order forced church officials to allow him to enter his home.
"He has no family, no one that visits him and his life and everything is the patriarchate," Robbins said.
Additional reporting by Fadwa Hodali Mohammed Daraghmeh.