Church renews legal battle over Jerusalem properties, citing new evidence
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Church renews legal battle over Jerusalem properties, citing new evidence

Greek Orthodox Patriarchate claims discovery of alleged corruption within Ateret Cohanim group is sufficient to overturn Supreme Court ruling on Old City buildings

Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III (3rd left) together with the Franciscan Custodian of the Holy Land Fr Francesco Patton (2nd left) and fellow church leaders from different denominations hold an ecumenical prayer outside the Petra hostel at Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem's Old City, on July 11, 2019. (GALI TIBBON/AFP)
Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III (3rd left) together with the Franciscan Custodian of the Holy Land Fr Francesco Patton (2nd left) and fellow church leaders from different denominations hold an ecumenical prayer outside the Petra hostel at Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem's Old City, on July 11, 2019. (GALI TIBBON/AFP)

The Greek Orthodox Church said Monday that it has filed a new lawsuit against a Jewish pro-settlement group in a bid to overturn a Supreme Court decision upholding the sale of three properties in Jerusalem’s Old City.

The Patriarchate claimed in a statement that it had “clear proof” of corruption in the long-disputed 2004 sale of several Old City properties, including two Palestinian-run hotels, to the right-wing group.

Israel’s top court gave final approval on June 11 to the 2004 long-term lease of three buildings located in East Jerusalem’s Old City to businesses linked to the Ateret Cohanim organization, which seeks to increase the Jewish presence in Palestinian-majority areas of the capital.

The deal made Ateret Cohanim the owner of the majority of properties located between the Old City’s Jaffa Gate and the entrance to its Arab market.

The sale triggered Palestinian anger and led to the 2005 dismissal of Patriarch Irineos I.

The Imperial Hotel at the Jaffa Gate, the lease to which was sold to the right-wing Ateret Cohanim organization and is the subject of an appeal by the Greek Orthodox Patriarch. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Ateret Cohanim’s purchase of 99-year leases through three front companies was challenged by the church, which claimed that the deals were signed by a corrupt church official who had not been authorized to do so. However, the Supreme Court ruled that the church failed to provide sufficient evidence that the agreements were made fraudulently.

According to court documents, front companies called Berisford Investments Limited, Richards Marketing Corporation, and Gallow Global Limited signed agreements with the Greek Orthodox church in 2004 to pay $1.25 million for the lease to the Hotel Imperial, $500,000 for the lease to the Petra Hotel, and $55,000 to lease a third property called Muzamiya House, also in the Old City.

In a petition filed Monday to the Jerusalem District Court, the church said new evidence necessitated new proceedings, although it acknowledged that the legal action it is requesting is rare.

“Among evidence attained by the Patriarchate are documents dating back to 1996 showing that the radicals’ financial supporter, billionaire and financier Irving Moskowitz, had reached an agreement with one of the tenants of the Petra Hotel to buy the protected lease rights for $ 4.5 million, in addition to his willingness to pay for other expenses as well as the adjacent ‘Little Petra Hotel,'” it said in a statement.

Petra Hotel in Jerusalem. (DiggerDina, Wikipedia)

“This is a clear proof of the corruption of the suspicious deals of 2004, since it is unreasonable to agree to buy the tenants’ ‘protected lease rights’ for $4.5 million in 1996, and nine years later to claim to have purchased from the Patriarchate the property itself, including a further hostel, being the ‘Little Petra Hotel,’ for a mere $500,000.”

“The Patriarchate also discovered that Ateret Cohanim, through its officer Mati Dan, used to pay bribes to ‘manage their affairs’ in connection to the church properties,” the church added. “These efforts coincided with local civic authorities, such as the Municipality of Jerusalem and the local Tax Authority, imposing arbitrary measures against tenants of the church properties resulting in the weakening of their position.

“The new evidence that the Patriarchate has obtained confirm that Ateret Cohanim and its companies forged documents and initiated court proceedings based on these forged documents, despite Ateret Cohanim’s knowledge that they were forged. The evidence shows that the suspicious deals of 2004 involved bribes by Ateret Cohanim, and all indications point to the bribes being paid to the then Patriarchate employee, Nicholas Papadimas.”

Israel captured mainly Palestinian East Jerusalem from Jordan in the 1967 Six Day War and later annexed it in a move never recognized by the international community. Some 320,000 Palestinians live in East Jerusalem, while the Israeli population there stands at 210,000.

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