The man who sold Jerusalem
10 May 2005
The secret sale of a priceless plot of land in the Holy
City has threatened the fragile balance between the
religions. DONALD MacINTYRE reports on the Greek Orthodox
priest accused of selling out his Palestinian flock for
These are tense times for Abu Walid Dajani, proprietor of
the New Imperial Hotel. The Arab hotel, one of the oldest in
Jerusalem despite its name, has been at the centre of the
city's turbulent history many times, thanks to its strategic
location just inside the Jaffa Gate,.
From a balcony here in December 1917, General Edmund Allenby
looked across Omar Ibn al Khattab square after dismounting
his horse outside the walls and entering the Old City on
foot to mark its liberation from the Turks.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the hotel housed a small cinema, and
its elegant ballroom was a favourite Palestinian wedding
venue. In 1967, during the Six-Day War, it was occupied and
used as a base by Israeli troops, then returned to the
Dijani family, the tenants of the property, which is owned
by the Greek Orthodox Church. But during more than a century
the old hotel has never faced a greater threat.
For it is at the centre of an international scandal which
has infuriated the Greek government and may yet help
sabotage the chances of a comprehensive peace settlement to
the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It has also fuelled local
demands from the Church's angry flock of 200,000 for the
Greek hierarchy to be replaced, as in other Christian
communities, by Arab prelates.
Irineos I, the beleaguered Greek Orthodox Patriarch - or as
his most senior bishops have repeatedly referred to him
since an unprecedented meeting of the Synod voted to depose
him last Friday, the "ex-patriarch" - is accused of being
behind a secret and politically explosive property deal.
Under it, three large buildings on the north side of Omar
Ibn al Khattab square have been made over by 198-year leases
- to all intents and purposes sold - to a group of as yet
anonymous Jewish investors. What makes the deal so
politically radioactive is its potential to alter the
delicate ethnic and religious balance of the Old City.
The shops, the Imperial and the Petra hotel, are just inside
the Jaffa Gate, at what is the most popular entry-point, but
also the junction of the Christian, Muslim and Armenian
quarters. Under the "Clinton parameters", laid down at Camp
David in 2000, the Christian and Muslim sectors were to fall
within Palestinian control, on the principle that what was
Arab would be Palestinian, part of a new Palestinian capital
of East Jerusalem, and what was Jewish, Israeli. Any peace
deal would have to ensure secure access for Jews seeking to
enter the Jewish quarter and to pray at the Wailing Wall.
But a Jewish foothold, and there is a widespread presumption
in the Old City that settler organisations passionately
devoted to the idea of an "undivided and eternal" Jerusalem
as the Israeli capital are involved in the purchase, on the
north, indisputably Arab, side of the square would create a
new and dramatic Jewish "fact on the ground", calling into
question the Arab character of the quarter and torpedoing
Bill Clinton's stipulation for "maximum contiguity" in the
then existing sectors in Jerusalem.
Mr Dajani, whose father, Mohammed, took a "protected"
tenancy" of the hotel from the Church in 1949, was by his
own wildly understated account, "surprised" when he read in
the Israeli newspaper Maariv in March about the transaction.
But he has been aware for a long time of the intense
interest of Jewish figures in the site .
About 18 months ago, he says, a pleasantly spoken American
aged about 70, "Jewish but without a kippa", says MrDajani,
turned up unannounced and asked the proprietor to spare 10
minutes to show him round. As they paused on the second
floor, "He looked me in the eyes and said, 'How much do you
need for me to buy you out?' I smiled and said I have never
thought of this question. He said, 'How can a man like you
go to sleep without thinking of a price'?" But Mr Dajani
politely insisted his tenancy was not for sale in such
circumstances and his visitor left.
When the story broke in the Israeli press - possibly leaked
to "soften up" public opinion about the secret $130m deal -
Mr Dajani sought an audience with the Patriarch. He says his
family had long enjoyed warm relations with the
patriarchate. But even in a Church frequently riven by
scandal and intrigue, Irineos is a controversial figure.
Paradoxically, Israel refused to recognise him for three
years after his election in 2001 because of his perceived
alliance with the Palestinian Authority, and Yasser Arafat,
in particular. But its grudging decision to do so in 2004
was this year overturned by an Israeli court on the grounds
that Irineos had won his election with the help of criminal
figures from Greece, including Apostolos Vavilis, a
convicted heroin trafficker.
Vavilis has also been the central figure in Greek criminal
investigations as an associate of Archbishop Christodoulos,
head of the Church in Greece, who has himself been engulfed
in a scandal over reports accusing his clergy of engaging in
the illegal trade in antiquities, trial-fixing and sexual
In an interview while still on the run, Vavilis claimed that
Irineos had offered him $400,000 to run a dirty-tricks
campaign against his two main electoral rivals but had
failed to pay up. In an atmosphere in which rumours about
homosexuality among the Greek clergy are rife, the dirty
tricks supposedly included unfounded allegations against
rivals, and the wholly baseless assertion that the
Patriarch's main opponent, Archbishop Timotheos, had hired a
Palestinian hitman to assassinate him.
Before the Jerusalem patriarch was recognised by Ariel
Sharon's cabinet, he entrusted the financial affairs of the
Church to the patriarchate's financial manager Nicholas
Papadimas, apparently granting him power of attorney. Mr
Papadimas has disappeared after facing allegations about at
least $700,000 reportedly missing from church accounts. The
Patriarch told Greek government officials that the financial
manager had forged documents and abused his authority to
sell a shop in Jaffa Gate.
Mr Papadimas, also undeterred by his fugitive status from
publicising his own version of events, has been quoted in
the Greek and Israeli press as saying the Jaffa Gate
transactions were authorised by Irineos. The newspaper
Haaretz said Mr Papadimas claimed the Patriarch had
done it to ingratiate himself with the Israeli authorities.
Mr Dajani says when he visited the Patriarch, he asked him:
"Your Beatitude, why don't you say, 'I have made a mistake
and ask the whole world to stand by me'?" When the cleric
repeated his denials, Mr Dajani says he said: "But you gave
[Mr Papadimas] the power of attorney."
Irineos' position was not helped when investigators sent
last month by an increasingly worried Greek Government
failed to come up with a convincing explanation. "From all
the pieces of evidence requested, only a few were given to
us," their official report said. "In themselves, they were
not helpful or informative enough for our case."
Although the Israeli courts have not always fully upheld the
cover afforded by a protected tenancy, Mr Dajani still
represents a possible obstacle to a complete takeover of the
hotel. He suggests there might have been three possible
scenarios. "One was that the deal gave ample time to the
patriarchate to buy me out after a while; the second was
they would be very patient. The protected tenancy lasts for
three generations and they would have to wait until after my
grandsons had run the hotel. But that would be a very long
wait. And the third would be that they would bring all sorts
of pressure on me to leave this place."
The last might be especially true if, as some Israeli
commentators, lawyers, along with ecclesiastical sources
have freely speculated that the Israeli government is, even
indirectly, behind the deal. The sum is certainly larger
than usually employed by settler groups. The Israeli
authorities categorically deny any part in the transaction.
But there is a precedent. In the early 1990s, the
patriarchy, the biggest ecclesiastical landowner in the
country and owner of perhaps 20 percent of the Old City,
sold St John's Hospice, close to the Church of the Holy
Sepulchre, to settler interests in a deal which turned out
to have been financed by the Housing Ministry, acting
through a foreign company and on the orders of the then
minister, David Levy.
Either way, the patriarchate is now locked in what is surely
the deepest crisis in its 16-century history. Irineos left
the patriarchate after the synod meeting which his dwindling
band of supporters insist was not properly constituted, and
returned under Israeli police guard early on Saturday
morning to his residence, from where he has continued to
insist he remains as patriarch, in defiance of his most
senior colleagues. Last night he was summoned to Istanbul by
the spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians, the
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, for urgent discussions.
But in the end, the future of the Patriarch may be less
important than that of the property deal made on his watch.
As Dimitri Dilani, of the National Christian Coalition, a
Palestinian pressure group in the church which is also
critical of the Palestinian Authority for not having
withdrawn its recognition of Irineos before, put it: "We
have won a battle but we are a long way from winning the
war. We need the land returned and the fate of the money
Last Saturday, in the crowded offices of the patriarchate,
the senior prelates seemed euphoric-almost light-headed
about their courage in voting to disown him the evening
before. But Archbishop Alexios of Gaza, for example, was
almost casually dismissive about the prospect of unstitching
a deal with huge regional implications. "Of course, what has
happened is a dark moment for the patriarchate," he said.
"But this can't be cancelled. An official thing has taken
Archbishop Timotheos, widely seen as the mastermind behind
Friday's palace coup, said: "Our Israeli friends should
understand that we haven't voted against them but against
the behaviour of the Patriarch who did all these things in a
Asked if attempts would be made by the dissidents to anull
the deal, the archbishop said he could not discuss
"political matters" until after the elections he said would
be soon, to replace the Patriarch. For all Israel's
protestations about not interfering in the internal affairs
of the patriarchate, its power to give, or deny, recognition
to a patriarch cannot fail to exercise an influence.
The move to acquire the properties, prompting the fear among
many Christians in the Old City that the settlers may soon
arrive to occupy them, is on a par with many other
purchases, outside the Old City as well as inside it, which
resulted in about 1,800 settlers now in residence in various
strategic points inside East Jerusalem neighbourhoods
populated by 230,000 Arabs.
Like the expansion of Maale Adumim to join up with
Jerusalem, the routing of the separation barrier outside the
city and other developments appear calculated to head off
the prospect of Jerusalem becoming the capital of a viable
Palestinian state. And they appear to cut directly across
Condoleezza Rice's warning this year to the Israeli
government not to do anything that would pre-empt final
status negotiations with the Palestinians on the city.
Daniel Seidemann, the Israeli lawyer who has been
monitoring, and opposing, such settlement activity in
Jerusalem for years says any peace plan would now have to
apply "microsurgery" to guarantee secure passage for Jews
through the Armenian quarter to the south of the square,
through to the Jewish quarter and the holy Wailing Wall. He
adds: "All of a sudden the border becomes mobile. You have a
settler presence. The people [who acquired the properties]
here were not making a random hit."