The church stopped short of confirming a report on Saturday by the Maariv daily newspaper that a former aide to Jerusalem Patriarch Irineos had sold Old City land to two groups of unnamed foreign Jewish investors, but did say that any such deal would be unauthorised and void.  

A spokesman for the Greek Orthodox church said the aide's  lawyer discussed with Maariv that such a deal would be null and void because it had not been issued by the patriarch -nor with the consensus of the Holy Synod.

Rights over Jerusalem

The major land holdings of the Holy Land's oldest church have entangled it in the Middle East conflict. Israel maintains Jerusalem (Al-Quds) is its indivisible capital, but Palestinians want Arab East Jerusalem - captured by Israel along with the West Bank and Gaza in the 1967 war - as the capital of a future independent state.

The Maariv report stirred dismay among the Greek Orthodox Church's 100,000 mainly Arab followers and prompted the Palestinian Authority to order an official investigation.

"These lands are Palestinian lands, not lands from Crete or Greece"

Marwan Toubasi, Greek Orthodox Central Council

"These lands are Palestinian lands, not lands from Crete or Greece," Marwan Toubasi of the Greek Orthodox Central Council told reporters. "We call on the Greek government to intervene and facilitate the inquiry."

Maariv said the Irineos' aide alleged to have brokered the multimillion-dollar deal had left the country. According to the church spokesman, an arrest warrant had been issued for a former employee of the partriarchate "for felony-level crimes".

Leasing land

The Greek Orthodox Church owns and leases big areas in Jerusalem, including affluent parts of the Jewish west and the land on which Israel's president and prime minister reside.

In recent years, pro-Zionist magnates, including Irving Moscowitz of the United States, have paid top prices for homes in East Jerusalem, including the Old City, so Israelis could move in.

"This matter clearly reveals Israel's plan to judaize Jerusalem," said Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmad Quraya in response to the Maariv report.

Israeli officials said there was no evidence of government involvement in the reported deal.