On Thursday, a top cleric said the patriarch, Irineos I, must step down to dispel allegations that church leaders were involved in leasing prime property to Jewish investors in disputed Jerusalem.

 

The report of the alleged property transactions caused an uproar last week, with Palestinian Christians accusing Irineos I of involvement in the transaction and demanding he step down.

 

The Greek Orthodox Church is one of the largest landowners in the region and owns prime property in east Jerusalem, the traditionally Arab sector claimed by the Palestinians as their capital.

 

The properties allegedly leased to Jewish investors include the Imperial Hotel, Petra Hostel and several shops near Jaffa Gate in the Old City in east Jerusalem.

 

Money offered

 

Palestinian Premier Ahmad Quraya
ordered an investigation

Jewish groups have been trying to expand the Jewish presence in Palestinian neighbourhoods in Jerusalem since the 1980s by offering large sums of money to local property owners.

 

Church officials have been dispatched from Athens to investigate, and Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmad Quraya ordered a separate inquiry.

 

On Thursday, a top church official for the first time joined those seeking the patriarch's resignation.

 

"The patriarch of Jerusalem has to resign so that the patriarchate of Jerusalem can regain its hurt prestige and continue its mission in the Holy Land," Archbishop Aristarchos, the acting chief secretary of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate told reporters.

 

The leases were reportedly signed by Nikos Papadimas, a financial officer of the church who vanished three months ago.

 

A spokesman for the patriarch told a news conference on Thursday that Papadimas had the authority to lease but not to sell property. The spokesman said Papadimas was not allowed to sign long-term leases.

 

The leases

 

Palestinians have accused Irineos
of betraying their cause

However, one church official said the leases for the Jaffa Gate properties were apparently for 99 years. The official said he had not seen the lease documents.

 

Papadimas is wanted in Greece after Greek Orthodox Church officials in Athens accused him of embezzling 600,000 euros (US$800,000) in church funds.

 

His wife is wanted on charges of money laundering. Separately, a European arrest warrant has been issued against Papadimas, Greek officials said.

 

The spokesman said the church was investigating the allegations of embezzlement but didn't think that Papadimas was under scrutiny before he disappeared.

 

Aristarchos said that even if the patriarch were unaware of the property deals, he bore ultimate responsibility. "Unintentionally and indirectly, the patriarch bears responsibility because he granted this authorisation which became the instrument for the long-term property transaction," Aristarchos said.

 

Unaware

 

"Unintentionally and indirectly, the patriarch bears responsibility"

Archbishop Aristarchos

The patriarch told reporters he was unaware of the alleged transactions. The spokesman said only the church's synod had the authority to sell property.

 

Irineos said he was not involved in any sale. "Nobody came and claimed property ownership, and even if somebody claims he bought it ... it needs the approval of the Holy Synod," he said. "Even the patriarch himself cannot sell it."

 

He said that if there was a transaction, it would be revoked.

 

The Israeli daily Maariv reported last week that Papadimas was the patriarch's right-hand man, and managed the church's vast land holdings and financial affairs in Jerusalem.

 

Palestinian Christians have accused the Greek Orthodox Church of betraying the Palestinian cause. Earlier this week, dozens of Palestinian Christians held a demonstration and demanded the patriarch's resignation.