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AMMAN, Jordan – At a recent Sunday mass, Arab Christians enthusiastically joined in the ancient chants and prayers of their faith — until the name of their spiritual leader was invoked.
"Unworthy, unworthy, unworthy," some called out in unison, their disdain aimed at Theophilos III, the Greek Orthodox patriarch of Jerusalem and leader of some 220,000 Arab Christians in Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories.
In recent weeks, such chants repeatedly erupted during services, the latest sign of trouble for a secretive church hierarchy whose previous leader was ousted a decade ago over allegations that he sold prime church property to Jews trying to increase their presence in traditionally Arab east Jerusalem.
The church's vast real estate holdings in the Holy Land also play a role in the current unrest, as part of demands by Arab Christians to have a greater say.
The unlikely rebels — many of them devout, middle-class professionals — want the church to promote Arab clergy, invest more in Arab congregations and open the books on secret property deals.
"We don't have a problem with the patriarch himself," worshipper Hanna Awais said after a recent Sunday service at the Church of the Presentation of the Lord, a Greek Orthodox church in Amman. "We have a problem with the rules, with the way they are treating us, treating the church and treating the properties."
The campaign has divided the Arab flock.
Munther Haddadin, a supporter of the patriarch, portrayed the protesters as a noisy minority and said identity politics should be kept out of the church.
"Christ did not come here to save (only) the Arabs," said Haddadin, a former Jordanian government minister. "There is no nationalism inside the church."
The patriarchate repeatedly has been dragged into the Israeli-Arab conflict over its real estate riches, particularly those in Jerusalem's walled Old City, home to major shrines of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. The Old City is located in the Israeli-annexed part of Jerusalem that Palestinians want as a future capital.
"This is the burden of the church, that they have a lot property and a lot of political pressure from all sides," said Amnon Ramon, a professor of comparative religion at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
That pressure has come to bear on Theophilos, elected in 2005 to replace Patriarch Irineos I, ousted over his alleged land deals.
Under established custom, a new patriarch requires recognition from the governments of areas where he operates — in this case Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority.
Jordan briefly withdrew its initial recognition in 2007 because of Theophilos' perceived failure to reclaim church lands and increase Arab participation, according to a U.S. diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks.
Israel withheld recognition until 2007, with Theophilos complaining at the time — according to another diplomatic cable — that Israel was trying to pressure him to complete outstanding land deals.
The church refuses to say how much property it owns. Haddadin said he has been told by church officials the holdings are worth between $64 billion and $70 billion. Issa Musleh, a spokesman for the patriarchate, said the church owns roughly 40 percent of properties in the Old City, but that he didn't know the value of all the holdings.
Musleh denied that Theophilos has given Israel sweetheart deals on land leases in Jerusalem, saying the patriarch is working hard to reclaim properties allegedly sold by his predecessor.
He declined to offer specifics.
"We have the right to use our properties and to take decisions on the properties according to the interests of the believers," he said in an interview at the patriarchate, a large, Old City compound abutting the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, one of Christianity's holiest shrines as the traditional site of Jesus' crucifixion and burial.
Musleh said protesters are mainly interested in real estate.
"They want to put the patriarchate under their control," he said. "If the patriarchate had no property, then no one would ask. I am sure of that."
The patriarch's challengers say their demands deal with the spiritual as much as business.
They say they want local Arabic-language seminaries and male monasteries since only celibate priests can rise in the ranks, unlike married Arab priests who serve in the congregations. Currently, the overwhelming majority of members in patriarchate's decision-making synod are Greeks.
Arab Christians also want to the church to decentralize and set up a diocese structure, while supporters of the patriarch say he wants to promote Arab priests, though most aren't willing to forgo marriage.
The current round of protests was triggered by the dismissal of a charismatic priest from the West Bank, Archimandrite Christophoros Atallah, who has been running a monastery for women north of Amman since the late 1990s. Christophoros has emerged as a leading voice of the protest campaign.
Protesters have pledged to continue without him, like they did earlier this month at the Church of the Presentation of the Lord.
Each time Theophilos' name was called out during priestly blessings — three times during a typical service — some in the crowd chanted "unworthy, unworthy, unworthy" instead of the required "God grant mercy."
Some call such protests disruptive.
"You can say he is worthy or unworthy outside the church, but not in the home of Jesus," worshipper Denise Batshon said.
Some say the church needs to carry out reforms if it wants to keep the faithful.
Sam Noble, an expert on the Greek Orthodox, said that since the 18th century, the church steadily lost followers to other denominations where they can participate fully. If the patriarch refuses to yield, this drain will continue, said Noble, at doctoral candidate in Islamic Studies at Yale University.
"Unless the patriarchate changes, eventually it will be just a real estate holding company with no faithful in the region," he said.