The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate said it plans to appeal to the Supreme Court against a lower court’s ruling that upheld a set of controversial real estate deals struck between officials from the Greek Orthodox Church and an Israeli right-wing group for properties in Jerusalem’s Old City. The properties bought by the Israeli group include two hotels just inside Jaffa Gate.
The Higher Committee of Church Affairs in Palestine, formed by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to deal with Christian affairs, linked the ruling to what it called Israel’s “attack” on the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the Muslim holy site in the Temple Mount compound of the Old City.
That was an apparent reference to events of the past two weeks, during which Muslims refused to enter the Temple Mount -– the holiest place in Judaism and the third-holiest in Islam — to protest Israeli security measures placed at the site following a July 14 terror attack in which three Arab Israelis used guns smuggled into the compound to kill two policemen guarding nearby. In response to Muslim protests, at times violent, all the new security measures were removed last Thursday and Muslims returned to the Mount for prayers. Claims that Israel was attacking the Mount were used as a rallying call during this as well as many previous periods of Palestinian unrest.
The investors who brought the real estate case to the Jerusalem District Court — three overseas holding companies for the Ateret Cohanim organization –- requested a declaratory judgment confirming their rights to lease the New Imperial and Petra hotels, as well as a private property, for 99 years, with an option to extend for a further 99 years.
They did so because the Greek Patriarchate had been refusing to recognize the legality of three contracts it signed in 2004, saying they were signed under fraudulent circumstances.
Ateret Cohanim works to populate the Old City and East Jerusalem neighborhoods with Jewish residents by purchasing properties from non-Jewish owners, often through holding companies.
Judge Gila Kanfi-Steinitz, deputy head of the District Court, ruled Monday that the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate was unable to prove fraud and that the contracts were valid because they had been signed by those authorized by the patriarchate to do so and because the plaintiffs – the investors – had paid the full amount for the leases.
In a statement issued in Arabic on Tuesday, the Higher Committee of Church Affairs in Palestine condemned the ruling. It said it provided a cover for Jewish groups to continue violating Palestinians’ rights and was “a political decision” serving what it called Israel’s plan to annex Palestinian land.
The committee pledged to continue acting to protect the mosques and churches of Jerusalem together with Abbas, its “brothers in Jordan” and spiritual leaders across the world.
In its own statement issued Tuesday, the patriarchate criticized what it called the court’s “abhorrent decision” and stressed that the current patriarch, Theophilus, had tried everything to cancel the deals, which were signed under his predecessor Iranaios.
Iranaios was accused of involvement in the agreement with Ateret Cohanim — a charge he has always denied. He was dismissed in 2005 and demoted to the status of monk. The Palestinian Authority later cleared him of the accusations.
Iranaios has blamed his former finance director, Nikolas Papadimos, for using a power of attorney issued for other matters to sign the agreements without the patriarch’s knowledge.
Papadimos is no longer in Israel.
“We believe that the District Court decision was political,” a church insider told The Times of Israel. “There are lots of facts that the judge did not consider.
“We hope salvation will come from the Supreme Court.”
The significance of the Ateret Cohanim victory in the District Court is not immediately clear because the families that run the two hotels – the Dajanis at the New Imperial and the Kiresh family at the Petra — have protected tenant status rooted in an Ottoman-era law that caps rents and is supposed to prevent arbitrary evictions. The status of people living in the private home is not known.
Protected tenant status – which passes through three generations, down the male line — was abolished after Israel conquered East Jerusalem during the 1967 Six Day War. But it still technically applies if the status began before 1968.
Protected tenants can be evicted after three generations have died, or beforehand if the Israeli courts can be persuaded that the status was erased by activities such as subletting.
Organizations including Ateret Cohanim have tried and continue to try to evict protected tenants in a number of cases in East Jerusalem, including in the Old City.
Ateret Cohanim declined to comment for this report.