ATHENS -- Leaders of Orthodox churches from Russia to the ancient Christian centers in the Middle East prepared yesterday for a rare gathering forced by a crisis in their ranks: the refusal of the Holy Land patriarch to step down even as his authority is shattered by rebel clerics, angry followers, and the hair-trigger issue of land rights in Jerusalem.
But the meeting beginning today in Istanbul -- the ancient spiritual heart of Orthodoxy -- has ripples beyond the fate of Patriarch Irineos I and the explosive allegations that his church leased property to Jewish investors in east Jerusalem, which Palestinians consider their capital.
The clerics must confront a bigger quandary that has been growing for decades: how to balance between Israeli and Palestinian demands and maintain their delicate role as the historical caretakers of Christianity in the Holy Land.
''In this sense, it is an event of significance for the whole Christian world," said Alexander Belopopsky, a spokesman for the Geneva-based World Council of Churches, an inter-religious group that includes the more than a dozen Orthodox churches.
The Orthodox patriarchate in Jerusalem, dominated by Greeks since antiquity, is under pressure from many sides.
There are demands for greater external scrutiny into church finances and its vast land holdings. Israelis worry the church has become too pro-Palestinian. But Orthodox clerics face an undeniable fact: Palestinian Christians are the bulk of their 100,000-member flock and are pressing for more say in church affairs.
''The church cannot ignore the Arabization of the patriarchate," said the Rev. Peter Herrs, a theologian based in Greece. ''To continue with a purely Greek leadership is considered wrong in many eyes."
The Istanbul proceedings are the first major pan-Orthodox summit in more than a decade. The gathering has no authority to formally dismiss Irineos or pick his successor. That duty rests solely with the synod, or governing council, of the Jerusalem church. And Irineos refuses to convene the synod.
But leading clerics from across the Orthodox world may use the Istanbul meeting to further isolate Irineos and voice opinions about how to regain the church's credibility after months of upheaval in Jerusalem.
A former financial adviser to Irineos is accused of giving Jewish investors 198-year leases for two church-owned hostels and several shops in the Old City. Palestinians were outraged, contending the deals were part of Jewish encroachment into Arab quarters.
In March, Palestinians spat and shouted at Irineos on Good Friday. This month, a group of Orthodox prelates staged a mutiny against Irineos and broke all contact. The patriarch also has been snubbed by the powers with nominal oversight over the patriarchate: Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Jordan.
Even the Greek Orthodox Church -- the traditional ethnic ally of the Jerusalem church -- has turned its back on the Greek-born Irineos. Meanwhile, the financial officer accused of drafting the leases, Nikos Papadimas, has vanished and is also sought for alleged embezzlement of at least $800,000.
Irineos had stood firm, denying any knowledge of the alleged leases. He traveled to Istanbul to defend himself.
He will face the most powerful assembly of Orthodox patriarchs and envoys since 1992, when Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I called a similar meeting to examine critical internal church relations following the Cold War.
Bartholomew, considered the ''first among equals" of the Orthodox patriarchs, also will preside over Irineos's hearing. Alongside will be the leadership from churches across the Orthodox heartland -- eastern Europe and Greece -- and historical seats such as Antioch and Alexandria. Russia's Patriarch Alexy II declined to come for health reasons, but sent his top foreign relations official.
''Bartholomew is worried about the image of the church," said Thomas Fitzgerald, a professor at the Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, Mass. ''He doesn't want this to get messier."
But finding a replacement carries its own complications.
Jordan and the Palestinian Authority will probably demand a greater Arab role in church decision making. All but one of the current senior clerics are Greek by birth or ancestry.
The patriarchate is one of the biggest landlords in the Holy Land.