Israel reassures churches it does not seek to seize their lands

Cabinet minister Tzachi Hanegbi meets church leaders after they send a letter to PM urging him to block a bill that would let state intervene in Jerusalem land dispute

Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III delivers a statement to the press as he stands next to the Custodian of the Holy Land Fr. Francesco Patton and Armenian Bishop Siwan (L) on February 25, 2018, outside of the closed doors of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City. (AFP Photo/Gali Tibbon)
Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III delivers a statement to the press as he stands next to the Custodian of the Holy Land Fr. Francesco Patton and Armenian Bishop Siwan (L) on February 25, 2018, outside of the closed doors of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City. (AFP Photo/Gali Tibbon)

Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi on Tuesday assured major churches in Jerusalem that Israel is not seeking to expropriate their properties.

A government statement said Hanegbi met leaders of the Armenian, Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches in response to a letter they sent last week to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In it, the churchmen called on Netanyahu to block draft legislation they said was aimed at expropriating their property.

“The government of Israel has no intention to confiscate church lands or to cause any economic damage to the churches,” the English-language foreign ministry statement quoted Hanegbi as telling them at Tuesday’s meeting.

“The goal of the government is to protect the rights of churches, of investors and of tenants,” he said.

Likud MK Tzachi Hanegbi at a meeting of the Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee in the Knesset. November 19, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Swathes of Jerusalem are held by various churches, in many cases under long-term leases from the state.

In some cases the churches then sublet the properties on the commercial market.

Israel’s parliament is working on a law that would allow the state to intervene in the resale of residential property leases to commercial property developers.

The religious leaders protested by closing the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site in Jerusalem where Jesus is believed to have been crucified and buried.

Israeli authorities then froze the legislation, committing to a dialogue with the churches.

The churches appealed to Netanyahu when the draft bill was placed on the agenda for an October 21 meeting of a government committee on pending legislation.

“We the heads of churches in the Holy Land find ourselves compelled to approach you,” they wrote.

“We were astonished to realize that this disgraceful bill was listed on the agenda of the ministerial committee for legislation,” they said.

The discussion was subsequently postponed for a week.

Listed as a bill for tenants’ rights, the draft aims to safeguard residents of properties assigned to “various bodies” on 99-year leases during the 1950s.

It does not specifically mention church holdings.

The bill’s sponsor, MP Rachel Azaria of the centrist Kulanu party says it was meant to solve the problem of “thousands of Jerusalem residents who could lose their homes due to the demands of developers”.

“Minister Hanegbi reiterated that the Christian community is extremely important to the state of Israel,” Tuesday’s statement said.

“Throughout the process the government will take all measures necessary to protect the rights of churches every step of the way,” it added. “Minister Hanegbi also stated that this is not a church-specific issue.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday intervened again to prevent the Knesset committee charged with approving legislation from considering a bill to allow the state to confiscate lands in Israel sold by churches to private developers.

The move followed pressure from the churches and, from the co-chairman of a powerful US congressional caucus established five years ago to advance the trilateral interests of Israel, Greece and Cyprus.

Pressure was also brought to bear on the prime minister on Friday by the Hellenic-Israel Alliance — a US congressional caucus launched five years ago to encourage American administration support for the relationship between Greece, Cyprus, and Israel.

House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wis. administers the House oath of office to Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Fla., during a mock swearing in ceremony on Capitol Hill in Washington, January 3, 2017, as the 115th Congress began. (AP Photo/Zach Gibson)

Gus Bilirakis (R-Fla.), who chairs the body with Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), and who also heads the congressional International Religious Freedom Caucus, said in a letter to Netanyahu that he was “both surprised and concerned to hear” that the Knesset law committee was once again considering the Azaria bill.

“I know that the Patriarch is in contact with the State Department and the office of the Ambassador for Religious Freedom here in the US,” he wrote.

“I applaud your continual efforts to protect the religious freedom of Christians and the rights of Churches to deal freely with their property.”

The proposed law, now backed by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked of the Jewish Home Party, is the brainchild of Kulanu lawmaker Rachel Azaria, a former deputy mayor of Jerusalem and, for a short while, a candidate for mayor in the upcoming Jerusalem municipal elections on October 31.

Kulanu MK and former Jerusalem mayoral candidate Rachel Azaria (Courtesy)

Azaria put the bill together several months ago after it was revealed during summer 2017 that the Greek Orthodox patriarchate of Jerusalem had sold prime land in the central Jerusalem neighborhoods of Talbieh, Rehavia and Nayot on which some 1,500 homes have been built on a leasehold basis.

A host of additional land sales were subsequently exposed.

The sales have caused consternation among homeowners on tracts of land sold by the patriarchate, partly because many of the buyers have kept their identity hidden behind offshore shell companies, and partly because of fears that the new owners will either demand sky-high prices to renew the leases when they run out, or, worse still, evict residents.

The legislation — which appeared on the agenda of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee several times before the Knesset broke up for its summer recess, only to be repeatedly delayed — is fiercely opposed by church leaders.

While the Greek Patriarchate has finished selling land for the time being, others, such as the Catholics and Armenians, fear that the legislation could deter future potential buyers, should they also wish to sell, severely impacting their freedom of financial operation.

Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem, Nourhan Manougian, and clergy members, lead the ceremony of the Washing of the Feet at the Armenian Saint James Church in the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City, on Maundy Thursday, during Easter week, April 28, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The Armenian church, for example, owns much of the land on Jerusalem’s central Shlomzion HaMalka street which it leases to the various businesses there.

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