The Jerusalem District Court on Wednesday denied a request by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate to block the transfer of rights over three buildings in the Old City to a right-wing group as part of a long-simmering conflict over a disputed 2004 sale.
Ateret Cohanim, a religious-Zionist organization that works to populate the Old City and other East Jerusalem neighborhoods with Jewish residents by purchasing properties from non-Jewish owners, sought long-term leases to the disputed properties via shell companies in 2004, setting off years of legal wrangling.
According to the Haaretz daily, political pressure has been exerted to thwart the sale, including the issue coming up for discussion at meetings held by Russian President Vladimir Putin during his trip to Israel earlier this year.
The newspaper further reported that the buildings are currently in use by Palestinian companies and that Ateret Cohanim is now looking to evict them.
The Patriarchate responded to the ruling, accusing the opposing side of fraud and saying it would appeal the matter at the Supreme Court.
“The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate presented to the court a plethora of new evidence of delinquent behavior, which includes extortion and fraud,” the church said in a statement to Haaretz. “Therefore it received with surprise the court’s ruling, less than 24 hours after the conclusion of the hearing, without the court examining the evidence and without allowing it to be heard. We believe that the court erred in its decision and intend to launch an appeal at the Supreme Court.”
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 –located between the Jaffa Gate and the Old City’s Arab market — and $55,000 to lease a third property called Muzamiya House, in the Christian Quarter.
The controversial deals triggered Palestinian anger and led to the 2005 dismissal of Patriarch Irineos I, who always claimed his innocence.
In August last year, the church filed a lawsuit in a bid to overturn a Supreme Court decision last June upholding the sale of the leases. The Patriarchate claimed that it had “clear proof” of corruption in the deal.
After representatives of the shell companies used by Ateret Cohanim failed to respond to the petition by the court-mandated deadline, Judge Tamar Bar-Asher in November ruled that the whole case should be reopened and ordered Ateret Cohanim to pay the church NIS 50,000 ($14,400) to cover legal expenses.
Property sales in Jerusalem are some of the most politically fraught in the world.
Israel took over mainly Palestinian East Jerusalem in the 1967 Six Day War and later extended sovereignty over it, in a move never recognized by the international community. It now considers the entirety of Jerusalem its capital, citing the Jewish historical and biblical connection there.
The Palestinians see East Jerusalem, including the Old City, as the capital of their future state, and view the growing Israeli presence as an existential threat.
The Greek Orthodox Church is the largest and wealthiest church in the Holy Land, commanding massive riches, largely in land portfolios dating back hundreds of years. It faces regular accusations of selling or leasing properties to Israel in predominantly Palestinian areas.
Agencies contributed to this report.