Israeli court awards Jerusalem church properties to settlers

Man dressed in klobuk and long beard

The Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III of Jerusalem attends the Christmas mass celebrations at the Church of the Nativity, in the occupied West Bank city of Bethlehem on 6 January 2019. 

Wisam Hashlamoun APA images

An Israeli court last month denied a petition by the Greek Orthodox Church to overturn the sale of leases on Jerusalem properties to an extremist Israeli settler organization.

The ruling again gives Ateret Cohanim, a right-wing group involved in colonizing Palestinian land in the city, the green light to take over the three properties.

The Jerusalem district court ruled in favor of the settler group last August, which seeks to ensure a Jewish majority in the Old City of Jerusalem through settlement and forcibly displacing native Palestinians.

Ateret Cohanim claims to have leased the church lands in 2004 from Irenaeus I, the Greek Orthodox patriarch at the time. The leases were for 99 years.

The church said it will appeal the 24 June ruling with Israel’s high court, and accused Jerusalem’s district court of neglecting “a host of new evidence of delinquent behavior, including extortion, fraud and deception” regarding the 2004 transactions.

“The court’s ruling came as a surprise, and it was received this morning within less than 24 hours from the conclusion of the hearing on the matter, without the court examining the evidence and without allowing it to be heard,” the patriarchate said.

“We believe that after reviewing the evidence, the Supreme Court will accept our case and reverse the district court’s decision.”

Yet that faith in Israel’s highest court may be misplaced.

It has previously ruled in favor of the settler organization, giving the go-ahead for it to take over the properties.

For the past 16 years, Ateret Cohanim has fought a legal battle against the church to try to seize the properties near Jaffa Gate in the Old City.

Two of the three properties, New Imperial Hotel and Petra Hotel, are currently occupied by Palestinian organizations, which Ateret Cohanim seeks to evict.

They are two of the oldest buildings in the city, overlooking the Dome of the Rock and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Irenaeus I was ousted from the church following accusations that he approved the transactions with Ateret Cohanim.

The three sites were leased at a much lesser value than they are worth, and church officials were accused of receiving payments from the settler group to advance the transaction.

A commission formed by the Palestinian Authority in 2005 investigated the matter and exonerated Irenaeus I of involvement in the transaction.

The investigation concluded that the deals were not endorsed by the Synod of Jerusalem, rendering them “legally invalid so they remain incomplete.”

Irenaeus I claimed his ousting was not legal and continued to identify as patriarch.

Theophilos III, the current patriarch, has rejected the sales that his predecessor allegedly approved, saying they involved bribes and corruption. The church took over the sites following his appointment.

The patriarchate claims that Ateret Cohanim bribed the church’s finance director, Nikolas Papadimos, to move forward with the deal.

The Greek Orthodox Church is one of the biggest landowners in the country.

While Theophilos III is attempting to stop the three properties from being taken over by Israeli settlers, he has himself been accused of trying to sell other church assets to often mysterious buyers, including Israeli investors.

This has caused Palestinian Christians to call for his ouster as patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church.


Tamara Nassar

Tamara Nassar is an assistant editor at The Electronic Intifada.