Greek church land investors threatening to cancel leases, KKL boss says

Greek church land investors threatening to cancel leases, KKL boss says

Danny Atar says group of mystery buyers may kick people out before leases end in 2050s. Investors’ lawyer: ‘KKL isn’t telling the whole story; it owes 10 years’ rent’

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. (AFP/Gali Tibbon)
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. (AFP/Gali Tibbon)

The chairman of KKL-JNF Jewish National Fund on Wednesday launched a blistering attack on a group of anonymous investors who bought large tracts of prime real estate in Jerusalem from the Greek Orthodox Patriarch.

The deal has plunged more than 1,000 homeowners into uncertainty because they sublease the land on which their homes are built from KKL-JNF, which currently holds the primary leases.

In a letter to the residents of Talbieh and Nayot, Daniel Atar charged that the representative of the investors sent a letter to KKL-JNF last week threatening to cancel the current lease, which runs out in the early 2050s.

He claimed that the investors “continue to harden their positions for the sake of profit, cynically using you, the residents, as ‘hostages’ in order to maximize their profits.”

“There is no doubt that the government of Israel cannot allow a situation in which veteran residents are at the mercy of a group of private investors (whose identity is not completely known), without any regulation of the matter,” A KKL-JNF spokesperson told The Times of Israel.

Director General of the Jewish National Fund, Danny Atar, at a press conference unveiling new evironmentally friendly development, in peripherial areas of Israel, at the Jewish National Fund in Jerusalem, on March 27, 2017. Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Avraham Aberman, a partner at Ephraim Abramson, who represents the investors, hit back Wednesday, telling The Times of Israel that the threat was delivered after the KKL-JNF had failed to pay lease installments for more than 10 years, and that the contracts inherited from the Patriarchate provided for the landowners to cancel the leases if the dues were not paid within three months of a warning, although without harming homeowners’ rights.

At issue are 570 dunams (140 acres) of land in the upscale neighborhood of Talbieh, in central Jerusalem, as well as the neighborhood of Nayot, extending into large parts of the Valley of the Cross, a rare tract of undeveloped land in the center of the capital, revered as the place where – according to Christian tradition – the wood was taken to make the crucifix for Jesus. It also includes much of the Israel Museum and well known hotels such as the Inbal and the Dan Panorama.

The land was sold by the Greek Patriarchate to a group called Nayot Komemyut Investments in 2016. The only known investor in the group is the Ben David family of Jerusalem, which owns less than half the shares. The Ben Davids invest in real estate and oil exploration.

If the leases are not renewed when they run out in the early 2050s, the homeowners who have not sold by then risk being forced to leave, to pay potentially high prices to extend leases or even to rent their own homes. The prices of their homes have already been negatively affected.

The Monastery of the Cross is located in the valley of the Cross in Jerusalem. (photo credit: Michal Fattal/Flash90)
The Monastery of the Cross, Jerusalem. (Michal Fattal/Flash90)

The situation is new because for the last few decades, the church has only leased land, not sold it.

Calling the deal “dubious,” “defective” and neither orderly nor clear, Atar said that since hearing about it, his organization had been dealing with the relevant people and bodies in government and the Knesset to find a solution, among them Knesset Interior Ministry Committee chairman, David Amsalem (Likud) who, he said, was helping to advance legislation “that will ensure the KKL-JNF’s renewal of the original lease with the owners of the land, so that your rights — residents of the veteran neighborhoods – will be preserved in full.”

Atar added that despite the investors’ “baseless and unreasonable threat,” the KKL-JNF would pay its annual installment for the current leases to “minimize harm to the residents.”

“At the same time, KKL-JNF will conduct negotiations with the land dealers in order to ensure the full realization of its rights — the rights of the Jewish people to the lands in question.”

Avraham Aberman said the real story was quite different. “We sent them many warnings, but they dodged and avoided them. In the last warning, which we sent in June, we demanded the payments again and warned about the sanctions available to us.

A view of Marcus Street in Talbieh, one of the Jerusalem neighborhoods with a large number of Greek Orthodox Patriarchate-owned properties (Courtesy Eiferman Realty)

“More than a month later, we got a letter which basically said that the didn’t recognize Nayot Komemyut Investments and they sent me a check – for a sum that is the subject of disagreement — made out to the Patriarch!

“That check bounced and we reminded them that they knew full well that we had acquired the rights, that they had seen the agreements, and to stop acting smart.

“They had no choice and yesterday – a few days before the three months are up — they informed us that they would pay.”

Aberman charged that while the annual lease payments amounted to just $34,000 on all the land, KKL JNF was profiting from the subleases.

It was also failing to tell the residents that it had been offered attractive terms for lease renewals over many years, that concerned residents had turned to it but had not been given proper responses, and that it had told the investors, after breaking off negotiations, that it would be back in touch after 2050.

“In a letter to me yesterday, they even denied that those negotiations ever took place!”

Aberman added that all the investors are Jewish, that most if not all are Israeli citizens, that all the companies involved are registered in Israel and report to the Israeli tax authorities and that nobody had any intention of harming the residents. “The key is in the KKL’s hands.”

The main initiative to advance legislation to protect residents is being driven by lawmaker Rachel Azaria (Kulanu). Just before the start of the Knesset’s summer recess, she signed 40 MKs onto a private members’ bill to allow the state to confiscate land that has been sold. The confiscation would take effect from January 1, 2018, and the private investors would be compensated.

Kulanu MK Rachel Azaria outside the Old City walls in Jerusalem, March 23, 2015. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

She plans to submit her bill to the Knesset’s Ministerial Committee for Legislation in the coming weeks.

The church, one of the country’s largest landowners, owns tens of thousands of dunams (acres) of land around the country. Some of its holdings are in sensitive areas such as city centers and antiquities sites, including the land the Knesset is built on in Jerusalem. In all, churches own about 100,000 dunams (24,000 acres) in Israel.

But while they are wealthy in land, they are short on cash flow, largely because of decreasing support from a declining Christian community in the Holy Land.

Recent media reports have exposed sales of Greek Orthodox Church land to private investors elsewhere in Jerusalem, at an antiquities site in the coastal city of Caesarea and around the iconic clock tower in Jaffa.

On Monday, in a highly unusual move, the main patriarchs and heads of churches in Jerusalem issued a joint statement to condemn what they called “recent further encroachment on the status quo” and to ask governments and church leaders and followers around the world to extend their support.

Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III (C) leads the Palm Sunday Easter procession at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem’s Old City on April 9, 2017. (AFP Photo/Gali Tibbon)

Saying that Azaria’s bill was “politically motivated” and would restrict
the rights of the churches over their own property, they wrote, “We see in these actions a systematic attempt to undermine the integrity of the Holy City of  Jerusalem and the Holy Land, and to weaken the Christian presence. We affirm in the clearest possible terms that a vital, vibrant Christian community is an essential element in the make-up of our diverse society, and threats to the Christian community can only increase the troubling tensions that have emerged in these turbulent times.”

In response, MK Azaria stressed that her bill was aimed solely at protecting the residents.

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