The Greek Orthodox church in Israel is facing bitter internal conflict and a dwindling membership due to charges from Arab lay leaders about financial misconduct by the church's mainly Greek-born hierarchy.

Lay leaders, organized as the Orthodox Congress (OC), accuse Patriarch Diodoros I and the church's governing body with commercializing church lands through long-term leases to for-profit real estate developers and pocketing the proceeds.

In Jerusalem, the Knesset, Israel Museum, Independence Park, and large sections of Jewish neighborhoods are on leased church lands, covering more than twice the area of Jerusalem's old city, according to OC chair Fuad Farah.

In a published letter, the OC executive committee says, "The blunt refusal to disclose details of such secretly drawn transactions and contracts, estimated at millions of dollars, arouses in us deep feelings of suspicion, as does [the church's] reluctance to reveal its budget or allow any form of participation of church deacons on decision-making." The letter asserts the church's leadership has neglected local parishes in Israel and the West Bank, instead funneling the money to support "extravagant wasteful spending and lavish living," including the maintenance of patriarchal residences in Greece.

The patriarchate denies the charges, citing a decade-long lawsuit with the Orthodox community in Nazareth over control of church properties as the reason it has not been able to focus on the needs of the community.

Cultural differences between the Greek leadership and Arab laity, who want the church to reflect their Arab identity, add to the tension. "It's a shame, because our belief was not an import from abroad but something authentic to this region," says Adi Bajjali, lay secretary of the Nazareth Orthodox community. "And we don't want to become antiquities or souvenirs in the Holy Land."

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