The Greek Orthodox patriarch of Jerusalem, during a visit to Moscow this week, lobbied Russian President Vladimir Putin and senior clerics against what he sees as threats from Israel to the church’s independence in the Holy Land.
At a dinner on Monday, Theophilus III asked Putin to intervene in a highly controversial deal that was carried out under his predecessor, the former patriarch, to lease three church properties in the Old City to front companies for a right-wing Jewish organization dedicated to obtaining properties for Jews.
The properties include two hotels prominently located between Jaffa Gate and the entrance to the Old City market, in one of the most visible parts of the Christian Quarter.
The deals, conducted by a former employee of the church, are highly controversial among Palestinians who regard East Jerusalem, of which the Old City forms a part, as the capital of any future Palestinian state.
In August, a district court upheld the deals, which led to the downfall of Theophilus’ predecessor Irenaeus and which Theophilus claims were concluded under false pretenses. He is appealing against the ruling at the Supreme Court.
With the backing of all the churches in the Holy Land, Theophilus has already visited the king of Jordan, the pope, the archbishop of Canterbury, and senior political figures in Greece and Cyprus to lobby against the lease deal.
His five-day visit to Russia enabled him to meet with and request the support of most of the heads of the Eastern Orthodox churches.
Theophilus is also worried about a Knesset bill that would confiscate lands the patriarchate has sold to private investors to balance its books, seeing the move as an unacceptable attempt by the state to interfere in the church’s right to deal freely with its own real estate.
The bill was proposed by Rachel Azaria (Kulanu) after it was revealed during the summer that the church had sold to anonymous businessmen land in central Jerusalem on which some 1,500 homes have been built on a leasehold basis.
Owners of homes on these lands have been plunged into uncertainty, not knowing who their new landlords are, whether they will be willing to renew the leases, and if so for how much money.
Azaria told The Times of Israel on Tuesday that she had put her bill on the back burner while a committee appointed by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked tries to come up with a solution to protect the homeowners.
While there were initial fears that the anonymous buyers included enemy elements from countries such as Iran and Qatar, it is now known that all the investors are Jewish and that a key shareholder behind many of the companies involved is David Sofer, a Jewish Israeli businessman living in London.
“I always said that I hoped we would not need such a law [to confiscate the lands sold and pay compensation to the private investors] but the problem of the residents still remains,” Azaria said.
“One of the aims of my bill was to get things moving, and things are moving,” she said, adding, “I am waiting to see what the committee comes up with.”
The houses and apartments in question are located on previously church-owned land in the Jerusalem neighborhoods of Givat Oranim (now owned by David Sofer and American billionaire Michael Steinhardt, through Oranim Ltd.), Abu Tor (where Sofer owns half a street, together with another Jewish Englishman, through a company called Kronty Investments Ltd) and in Talbieh, Rehavia and Nayot, where Jerusalemite Noam Ben David has bought vast swaths of land together with an Australian and an American now living in Israel via Nayot Komemiyut Investments.
Last month, the Executive Committee of the World Council of Churches, which represents more than 560 million Christians in more than 100 lands, issued a strongly worded statement saying that it had “heard with concern from the heads of the churches in Jerusalem of the ways in which church institutions and properties in Jerusalem are threatened as a result of a combination of contracts of disputed legality, the efforts of radical settler groups, and policies of the Government of Israel.”