Wednesday, April 19, 2006

ATHENS — 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 Christ 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 reputed deals to lease Greek Orthodox properties to Jewish investors in Jerusalem’s Old City.

The upcoming ceremony on Saturday — 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 in May last year 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 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.

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

In Greece, meanwhile, investigators are digging deeper into a potential 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.

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