Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III leads the Orthodox Easter ceremony of the "Holy Fire" as thousands gather in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem’s Old City on April 15, 2017. The ceremony celebrated in the same way for eleven centuries, is marked by the appearance of "sacred fire" in the two cavities on either side of the Holy Sepulchre. / AFP PHOTO / GALI TIBBON

Amid Outcry, Greek Church Defends Its Sales of Land in Jerusalem, Jaffa, Caesarea


By Sue Surkes

JERUSALEM (Times of Israel) — The Greek Orthodox Church has broken its decades-long practice of leasing land to Israelis, and has now sold it, because it can no longer withstand massive pressure from Israeli authorities to hand over its real estate, church insiders claim.

The issue hit the headlines recently with revelations of sales by the church to private investors in Jerusalem, Caesarea on the coast, and Jaffa adjacent to Tel Aviv.

On Monday, the most senior figures involved in public land management in Israel are set to meet to discuss how to deal with these sales.

In parallel, lawmaker Rachel Azaria (Kulanu) is trying to advance legislation that will transfer tracts of these lands to the state in return for compensation to their private owners.

The Greek Orthodox Church is the second biggest landowner in Israel.

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The sales, revealed to the public in the course of July, have caused concern among Israeli lawmakers and officials because nothing is known about the buyers. Fears have been expressed that enemy elements may be involved.

The transactions have also thrown homeowners whose buildings stand on the land into a panic.

Finally, the deals have caused fury among sectors of the Palestinian Orthodox public, who resent the dominance of the church by Greek nationals and want them replaced by local Palestinian clergy. They have called for the patriarch’s removal.

A statement Sunday from the Arab Central Orthodox Council — which last week gathered some 70 lay members of the church from the center and north of the country to discuss the issue — called the land sales “dubious” and illegal and said the patriarch had no right to sell the lands. He was required by Ottoman law to run the church properties in partnership with the local lay community but instead ran things “in secret,” the statement charged.

“What’s stopping [the patriarch] from publishing the names of the buyers?” it asked.

Last week, the patriarch hit back at his critics with a lengthy statement in Arabic which began by slamming his Palestinian detractors’ “accusations, promises, misrepresentations and falsification of the facts in order to serve their suspicious objectives.”

A Christian figure closely connected with the deals told The Times of Israel that the patriarch’s Palestinian critics “don’t understand what difficulties and pressures we’ve been subject to and how little control we actually had over these lands.”

He said that none of the lands sold since 2011 had religious value.

Furthermore, he said, the church had been forced to lease them to Israel so cheaply and for such long periods that de facto, it had no chance of regaining real control over them anyway.

In the 1950s, Jerusalem’s Old City — the seat of the Greek Orthodox patriarch — was still part of Jordan. Because the patriarch was determined to retain the lands but had little with which to bargain, “Israel was able to set the terms and very low prices to lease them,” the source said. Because the patriarch was in Jordan, the Greek consul served as envoy and witness to the signings of both parties.

During the Six Day War in 1967, Israel conquered Jerusalem’s Old City. Today, that forms part of East Jerusalem, which Israel claims as part of its capital and which the Palestinians seek as theirs. The international community does not recognize Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, suspending recognition until the issue is resolved as part of an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.

Leases for more than 700 dunams (173 acres) in upscale coastal Caesarea, which today include parts of a national park, may not run out until after 2200 as they were signed in the 1970s for 135 years, with an option to renew for another 100 years.

It was recently revealed that this land was sold in 2015 for $1 million to Saint Ventures, a company registered on the Caribbean island of St. Vincent.

A similar arrangement was in place for a smaller plot, of around 1.5 acres around Jaffa’s clock tower, which was sold in 2013 for around $1.8 million to another Caribbean-registered company, Bona Trading.

St. Ventures and Bona Trading are both understood to involve a partnership between a Ukrainian businessman, well known to the patriarch, and a Jewish businessman from the UK.

Caesarea Investments, which holds the lease to the Jaffa Clock land, claimed in court in December that it should have had first option to purchase the land and said the deal with Bona Trading should be canceled.

In the case of the sale of land in Jerusalem’s Talbieh and Nayot neighborhoods, the church signed three contracts between 1951 and 1952, each for 99 years, and renewable for periods of at least an additional 49 years in one case and an undefined period to be negotiated in the other two. The price of renewal is also to be negotiated and details are set out for mediation in cases where talks might break down.

The Jerusalem deal has caused such waves because of the uncertainty into which it has cast thousands of homeowners.

The land on which their houses and apartments are built was — until recently — subleased from the Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund, which, in turn, leased it from the church.

The KKL — established in 1901 to buy and develop land in what was then Palestine for Jewish settlement — has so far refused to activate its option to extend the leases, when they run out in 2050 and 2051, claiming that it does not know enough about the new deal or about the buyers, who have chosen to remain anonymous behind the company name, Nayot Komemiyut Investments.

Should the leases not be renewed, the homeowners face the risk of having to leave when the leases run out, to pay large sums of money to renew the leases, or even to continue living there as tenants paying rent.

For the church, the Nayot-Talbieh deal was no great financial deal to start with, according to the source.

From the start of the leases through to 2006, the KKL paid the church less than $1 million, according to the source.

In 2006, the KKL stopped paying altogether, the source said, claiming that the church’s accounts were under foreclosure because of unpaid taxes elsewhere, and that therefore, there was nowhere to send the cash.

Poor lease income was not the only downside of the deal.

More than half of the Talbieh-Nayot lands — 83 acres — were beyond the church’s control anyway, having been turned into parks (Liberty Bell Garden and Sacher Park), the Israel Museum, synagogues, schools, roads and the biblical preserve around the Monastery of the Cross, below the Israel Museum, the source explained.

The monastery itself is not part of the deal.

Furthermore, 27 acres were the subject of an endless tug of war between KKL and the church in the courts, having been part of a scam that came to light in 2000.

In that case, a pair of Israelis tried to fraudulently extend the Talbieh-Nayot leases on KKL’s behalf for 999 years by getting the then patriarch, Theodorus, who was old and sick, to sign a contract by telling him that he was signing an Easter card.

The criminal courts ordered the cancellation of the deal.

But in the civil courts, the KKL — according to the source — tried to have foreclosure notices served on the lands anyway. The Supreme Court ruled against this but did permit the KKL to write in the land registry that the lands could still be subject to proceedings in the Jerusalem District Court. In short, the ruling enabled KKL to continue to try to win the land from the church.

“These lands became such a hot potato that the church decided to sell them,” the source said, adding that the Patriarchate was also reluctant to be seen as the bad guy having to evict homeowners if the leases were allowed to end in around 30 years.

The two-stage deal — which has netted the church a total of $32.4 million — obliges the investors to cover all previous and any future costs associated with the court cases as well as taxes connected with the transaction.

The Talbieh-Nayot deal not only removed what had become an open sore for the church, it also enabled the Patriarchate to pay off some of its other debts.

The first concerned a $28-million tax bill on church lands belonging to the Greek Orthodox monastery of Mar Elias, between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Payment of a compromise sum of $2.9 million to the land tax authorities enabled the church to release the lands from foreclosure.

The unspoken agreement between the church and its backers is that it has freedom to act within Israel’s borders, but is forbidden from selling land in the West Bank.

Although widely viewed as wealthy, the church — an independent entity — owns land but has negligible cash and income.

It lets its properties for little or no cost to the Orthodox community, and spends almost $1 million a month on running costs. Half of this goes on salaries for bishops and on staff and expenses at the handful of loss-making schools it runs in Israel, Jordan and the West Bank.

While its costs rise, the church’s traditional base of congregants and donors has shrunk to almost zero, as Christian Arabs have left the region in droves for Europe and the US over the decades.

“There are just 8,000 Christians left in Jerusalem,” the source said. “In the West Bank and Israel, they hardly make up 1 percent.”

And while the Greek financial crisis is not related to the church’s economic problems, salvation is not expected from Athens.

“The Patriarchate is weak and can be pressured from all directions,” the source said. “Since the Jerusalem land sale went public, it’s caused the patriarch nothing but embarrassment and shame.”