Ancient Roman Amphitheater in Caesarea sold by Greek Orthodox church to mystery foreign buyer

Justice ministry calls emergency meeting over shock sale of 700 dunams of land belonging to Patriarchate in ancient port city, TV report says

The Roman Amphitheater in Caesarea. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)
The Roman Amphitheater in Caesarea. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

The Roman Amphitheater and the hippodrome in the ancient Israeli coastal city of Caesarea have been sold off, in secret, to a mysterious overseas holding company by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate.

In total, over 700 dunams of land (172 acres) in Caesarea were sold in deal last month, Channel 2 news revealed on Sunday, including large chunks of what is designated as a historic national park.

The amphitheater is often the venue for Israeli and international performers. The Pixies are set to give two concerts at the site later this month.

The deal — for an undisclosed amount — was finalized last month between the Greek Orthodox Church and a company by the name of Saint Ventures Limited, which according to Channel 2 is registered somewhere in the Caribbean. A number of countries in that region are known tax havens.

News of the sale followed revelations earlier this month that the church also secretly sold off some 500 dunams (123 acres) of property in some of the wealthiest parts of the Israeli capital of Jerusalem.

Pink Floyd perfoming at the amphitheater in Caesarea, June 5, 2008. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)
Pink Floyd perfoming at the amphitheater in Caesarea, June 5, 2008. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

The Caesarea sale shocked officials in the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and the Jewish National Fund, as well as those in the Israel Lands Authority and the Justice Ministry, according to the Channel 2 report Sunday.

The Justice Ministry called for a meeting in the coming days to discuss how to handle the issue of land sales by the church — the second biggest owner of land in Israel after the Israel Lands Authority.

The latest deals, one senior justice ministry official told the channel, require “the intervention of the relevant bodies.”

Another official, from the Parks Authority, which manages nature reserves and national parks, said the government agency “will act to ensure the protection of the ancient assets on the land.”

Caesarea was built some 2,000 years ago by King Herod and became the commercial capital of ancient Judaea. New discoveries are often made in the ancient city.

Earlier this month, some 1,500 owners of properties in Jerusalem’s most affluent neighborhoods discovered that the land on which their homes sit had been sold by the church secretly to a number of private real estate companies.

Similarly to the Caesarea sale, the two deals in Jerusalem were reportedly made not only behind the backs of the homeowners, but also without the knowledge of the Jewish National Fund — to which the church originally leased the land for 99 years — and the state.

The Greek Orthodox Church acquired some 4,500 dunams (1,110 acres) of real estate in the center of Jerusalem during the 19th century, primarily for agriculture. In the 1950s, just after Israel’s independence, it agreed to lease its land to the JNF for 99 years — with an option to extend. Even Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, is built on Greek Orthodox-owned land.

The cost of the deals, one in 2011 and other in 2016, is estimated at NIS 114 million ($32.4 million) — a figure which is said to reflect the fact that relatively few years remain on the leases still being paid by the JNF.

The 2016 deals, for some 500 dunams (125 acres) in central Jerusalem, were all registered through the legal offices of Ephraim Abramson and included an appendix naming many of the properties and property owners included in the deal, the report said.

The deals included more than 200 plots in the wealthy neighborhood of Talbieh, where the prime minister’s and president’s residences are located, and in Nayot, near the Israel Museum — leases that will run out in 30 years.

The sales have pitted Palestinians and Greek nationals within the church against one another and are causing tensions between Palestinian Christians inside and outside of the Palestinian Authority.

Palestinians in the West Bank and Jordan have called for the ouster of the current Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos lll, over the sale in West Jerusalem, land that was part of Israel even before the 1967 war.

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