Leaders of the Greek Orthodox Church in the Holy Land have announced that they are breaking off all contact with the embattled Patriarch Irineos I because of corruption suspicions and consider him dismissed.
Thirteen bishops and 25 archmandrites of the church made the announcement in a statement.
Their dismissal is not binding, but it ratchets up internal pressures on Irineos to step down over allegations he was involved in leasing prime church property to Jewish settlement groups in Jerusalem's Old City.
The patriarch has denied wrongdoing in the land transactions, which, while legal, are politically explosive because Palestinians see them as abetting Jewish groups in their efforts to expand their presence in East Jerusalem.
Palestinians consider that sector of the city as the capital of their future state.
In their letter on Thursday, the clergy assigned Irineos "all direct responsibility for corruption within the patriarchate," singling out his "unilateral and irresponsible forfeiture of property and buildings that belong to the Orthodox Church".
They declared him persona non grata, served notice that they would bring legal proceedings against him and his associates "to revoke all suspect deals and restore all that was sold".
Irineos wasn't immediately available for comment. Earlier this week, he described his opponents in the patriarchate as "worms and trash", adding: "Let them cut off my hands if I have stolen anything. The mud they have slung as me is still fresh, but it will dry and fall off."
Dimitri Diliani, head of a coalition of Palestinian Christians, called the clergymen's revolt on Thursday a "historic move of disobedience" that would further isolate Irineos and create more pressure on him to resign or convene the patriarchate's Holy Synod, which would have the authority to dismiss him.
Palestinians, who consider the alleged land deals a betrayal, have held several protests against Irineos outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, demanding he step down.
On Friday, an Israeli newspaper reported it had obtained proof the church leased the property to Jewish investors for 198 years, a transaction tantamount to a sale.
The alleged land deal, which the Maariv daily first reported in March, involves two hotels and several shops near Jaffa Gate in the Old City.