Easter ritual casts light on holy land

By BRIAN MURPHY

The Associated Press

ATHENS, Greece – For Orthodox Christians, one of the most stirring images of the Easter season is a burning candle being carried from the site in Jerusalem where tradition says Jesus was crucified and buried.

The “holy fire” is passed among worshippers outside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and is taken aboard special flights to Athens and other cities – connecting many of the 200 million Orthodox worldwide to their spiritual roots.

But in recent years, it also has illuminated the messier passions of the Holy Land: religious rivalries among the Orthodox and the building-by-building competition between Israelis and Palestinians in some parts of Jerusalem.

Greek and Armenian clergymen have exchanged blows over who would be the first to bring out the flame. Last year, Israeli police held back Palestinians outraged by alleged deals to lease Greek Orthodox properties to Jewish investors in Jerusalem’s Old City.

The upcoming ceremony on April 22 – the eve of Orthodox Easter – has elements for even higher drama. The land scandal has splintered the Greek Orthodox, one of the caretakers of the Holy Sepulcher shrine.

Orthodox leaders last May ousted the church’s Jerusalem-based patriarch, Irineos I, after reports of deals for several prime buildings near Jaffa Gate. The church’s mostly Palestinian Christian congregation denounced it as another attempt to weaken the Arab presence in east Jerusalem – which Palestinians insist must be the capital of any future state.

Irineos, however, has not gone quietly. He has refused to recognize his dismissal and still commands a band of loyalists. Israel, too, has not given its formal backing to the new patriarch, Theofilos III, who says he opposes the reported leases. Traditionally, the Greek patriarch needs three-way approval that includes Jordan and the Palestinians, which have given the nod to Theofilos.

The patriarchate dispute is now before Israel’s Supreme Court.

In Greece, meanwhile, investigators are digging deeper into a possible espionage affair involving Irineos’ selection as patriarch in 2001.

The probe centers on whether a convicted drug trafficker, Apostolos Vavilis, was sent on secret missions to lobby for Irineos, who was the choice of Greek officials and clerics at the time. Vavilis – whose aliases included Apostolos Pavlos, or Apostle Paul – was extradited from Italy on April 6 to face charges including “revealing state secrets” to foreign agents. He was returned to Greece wearing the black robes of an Orthodox priest, although he is not ordained.

The official who allegedly negotiated the leases, church financial officer Nikos Papadimas, remains a fugitive.

It’s possible Irineos could attempt to directly challenge Theofilos’ authority at the flame ceremony, but that would constitute an almost irreparable rupture in the church. More likely is a noisy showdown of taunts and name-calling between the rival groups. Israeli security was heightened last year because of showdowns.

“Father Irineos is the legal patriarch,” said a supporter, a clergyman also called Irineos. The former patriarch could not be reached for comment.

Archbishop Aristarchos, who handles security for the patriarchate, said there are “rumors” Irineos could make an appearance but “there is no way that the previous patriarch will come to the ceremony as the patriarch.”

“Only Theofilos III will come to the ceremony as the patriarch,” Aristarchos said. “I hope and I wish that there will not be any unpleasant episodes.”

The Orthodox ritual of the “holy fire,” performed alone by a patriarch in the tomb of Jesus, dates back at least 1,200 years, and a “miraculous” fire is mentioned in earlier texts. The precise details of the lighting are a closely guarded secret, but some faithful consider it an annual miracle.

It also illustrates another of the intricate protocols that govern the site, which is administered by Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic and Roman Catholic clerics. The Coptic, Ethiopian Orthodox and Syriac Orthodox churches also have duties to maintain specific areas. Under a pact going back to 16th century Ottoman rule, two Muslim families share duties as the sole gatekeepers.

For some, the tensions this Easter also help drive home demands to end Greek control of the Jerusalem patriarchate and its 40,000-member flock.

The Greek clerics leading the church “are foreigners who don’t work for the best interests of the Palestinian Christians,” said Dimitri Diliani, who leads of a coalition of Palestinians Christians that plans to bring more than 1,500 faithful to the flame ceremony. “They have been irresponsible in handling the property of Palestinian Christians and have been involved in Judaizing’ Jerusalem.”

But Daniel Rossing, who heads a Jerusalem-based group that promotes inter-religious dialogue, said it’s difficult to make such sweeping changes to religious traditions in Jerusalem, which has deep significance for Jews, Christians and Muslims.

“Any event in Jerusalem, like the Greek church troubles, cannot just be looked at as a local squabble,” he said. “It affects all of Christianity because of the universal nature of Jerusalem.”

Associated Press reporter Laura Resnick in Jerusalem contributed to this report.