We write to express our serious concern over two issues involving the State ofIsrael and the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, a member church of theWorld Council of Churches, and to call for your cooperation in taking urgentremedial action.The first issue concerns the right of churches to run their own affairs. The Stateof Israel is currently continuing to recognize Mr Irineos Skopelitis as GreekOrthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem despite his renunciation and dismissal from officeby the church’s highest decision-making body, the Holy Synod of the GreekOrthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem. As your government is aware, when ex-Patriarch Irineos refused to accept this formal renunciation of his patriarchal statusby the body that granted it, an extraordinary Pan-Orthodox Synod was heldon May 24, 2005 in Istanbul. There, the Synod of the Heads of Churches of theOrthodox Autocephalus Churches and their representatives upheld both the decisionto dismiss ex-Patriarch Irineos and the authority of the Holy Synod in Jerusalemto take that decision. Jerusalem’s Holy Synod subsequently reduced the ecclesiasticalrank of Mr Irineos Skopelitis to that of a monk.The other governments involved in the case – Jordan, the Palestinian Authority,and the Greek Government which is indirectly involved – have withdrawn theirrecognition of the ex-patriarch thereby respecting the church’s right to decideupon it’s own leadership without external interference in the exercise of that right.
The Government of Israel’s continuing refusal to recognize this decision of theGreek Orthodox Patriarchate violates the basic principle of non-interference bythe state in the affairs of the church.
We recall that this principle was also exercised early in the tenure of ex-PatriarchIrineos. When he was first elected, the State of Israel refused to recognize him aspatriarch for more than one year. Based on the same principle which is at stakenow, the World Council of Churches’ Central Committee called on the State ofIsrael to “recognize the election of His Beatitude Patriarch Irineos I as head of theGreek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem” (WCC Statement, September 2, 2002;and letter to the Prime Minister of Israel, September 4, 2002) because he hadbeen duly elected by the competent church authorities.
The second matter is related to the first. It concerns the inviolability of churchprecincts. As a result of the state’s continuing recognition of the ex-patriarch,Israeli police have been stationed in the monastery of the Greek OrthodoxPatriarchate of Jerusalem at the request of the ex-patriarch and supposedly for hisprotection. The duly-appointed church authorities have opposed this unwarrantedpresence of the police in the monastery, but without success. In an incident onJuly 13, 2004, the police stationed there allowed a group of approximately 40men forcibly to enter the precincts of the monastery and to destroy property inthe monastery. The police watched the destruction of property and allowed theintruders to stay on the premises for several hours despite the protests of the clergyin charge of the monastery.
We do not accept the claim that the police presence in the church compoundis legitimized by an invitation from ex-patriarch Irineos. It has been brought tothe attention of the Israeli authorities repeatedly that he is no longer recognizedas the patriarch by the church that exercises authority over those premises. Onthis point our concerns for recognition of church leadership and inviolability ofchurch property come together.
Police and official actions have violated church rights in this case in three ways:
by the continued non-recognition of a church decision on leadership, by maintainingan armed presence on church precincts, and by allowing unlawful conductby intruders on church property.
We note with respect that the State of Israel has pledged itself to honour thespecial legislation, covenants, orders and treaties on Jerusalem known as the statusquo, which protects the sanctity of Holy Places and the rights of churches tomanage their own affairs. Alarmed at the violation of principles to which Israelhas agreed, we call on your government to take the following steps to resolve thiscrisis:
First, in respect of the rights of churches to manage their own affairs, to withdrawrecognition of Mr Irineos as patriarch.
Second, in like manner, to recognize Metropolitan Cornelios of Petra as LocumTenens of the Patriarchate and, in due course, to recognize as patriarch whosoeverwill be duly elected by the Holy Synod of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate ofJerusalem.
Third, in respect of the inviolability of church premises, we call on the Governmentof Israel to remove the police from the monastery of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate.Similarly, we reiterate the long-held rule that if police are invited to enter anychurch, mosque or Holy Place by the legitimate religious authorities of the site,they do so without arms.
We make these requests mindful that justice must also be done in the case atthe heart of this crisis, namely, the irregular transfer of church lands in Jerusalem.
It is urgent that the competent authorities oversee the return of the land to itsproper owners – in the name of the law and in the interests of peace.
The member churches of the WCC and the churches of Jerusalem are resolvedto see Jerusalem become a shared city under the rule of laws that protect peacefor the two peoples who live there and for the three religions for whom it is holy.We look to the State of Israel to share in that resolve and to fulfill its responsibilitiesin these matters accordingly.
After your receipt of this letter we will seek an early opportunity to meet withyou about these concerns.
Rev. Dr Samuel Kobia – General Secretary