Jewish investors believed to be buying up Greek Patriarchate land

Purchases by foreign-registered companies have infuriated some in the church amid claims they will change status quo

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

Michael Steinhardt attends a meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem on April 26, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Michael Steinhardt attends a meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem on April 26, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A major Jewish donor to Israel is believed to be among the shareholders in an anonymous company that last year purchased several acres of former Greek Patriarchate land in the Jerusalem neighborhoods of Givat Oranim and Old Katamon.

The well-known hedge fund manager and property developer Michael Steinhardt is said to be one of the investors in Oranim Limited, registered last year by an Isle of Man company, Trident Nominees.

Another shareholder is reportedly David Sofer, an Israeli businessman and Middle Eastern art collector living in London.

Steinhardt and Sofer are also two of the three directors of Abu Tor Properties Limited, which bought a long-term lease — as opposed to land — from the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate for a roughly one-hectare (2.5-acre) hilltop site in Abu Tor, just south of the Old City, on which they plan to build 61 luxury apartments.

That site is believed by Christians to be the original Hill of Evil Counsel, where, according to the New Testament, the Jewish High Priest Caiaphas and his advisers decided to betray Jesus to the Romans.

Oranim Ltd is one of several anonymous companies that has been buying land from the country’s cash-strapped Greek Orthodox Church over the last five or so years. Those companies are registered in overseas tax havens, and the names of their investors have been kept firmly under wraps.

Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilus III, during a press conference about the sale of church lands, November 2, 2017. (Screen capture, YouTube/The Tablet international Catholic weekly)

The sales have infuriated not only sectors of the church’s Palestinian members, who have held several protests in recent weeks calling for the ouster of the patriarch and the upper echelons of the Church hierarchy, which are drawn from Greece. They have also sent homeowners with leases to the land into panic, because nobody knows who the new landowners are, whether they will renew the leases, and if so, for how much money.

Oranim Ltd is believed to have bought plots on Shai Agnon, Hama’aplim, Hashayarot and Mavo HaOleh streets, as well as a stretch of open land in the San Simon Park that includes the lease to a complex that once housed people with disabilities.

The purchase is said to include at least 235 leasehold apartments, as well as a large shopping center on Shai Agnon. The leases on the properties are due to run out in 2069 — in 52 years.

Oranim Ltd bought the land last year from another company, Kronty Investments Ltd, which is registered in the British Virgin Islands and about whose investors nothing is publicly known.

Kronty’s main investor is believed to be an ultra-Orthodox Jew living in England.

Kronty bought the plots in Givat Oranim directly from the Greek Orthodox Church for what the Haaretz daily reported was $3.3 million for an area of 27 dunams (6.7 acres). It is not known for how much Kronty sold the land to Oranim.

Kronty has also purchased from the patriarchate half a street in Abu Tor, and plots on Hess Street in the city center, in the southern neighborhood of Baka (Gad and Lifschitz streets), and on the upscale King David and Ben Sira Streets in downtown Jerusalem, where it is advancing plans to build hotels and commercial space.

Steinhardt — a prominent philanthropist and co-founder of the Birthright program, which has funded fully subsidized 10-day trips to Israel for more than 500,000 young Diaspora Jews — was one of the two first non-Israeli citizens to light a torch at Israel’s official Independence Day celebrations on Mount Herzl earlier this year.

According to a Wikipedia tally, he has donated more than $125 million to Jewish causes.

His most recent major gift to Israel was the 8,000-square-meter (26,250-square-foot) Steinhardt Museum of Natural History, Israel National Center for Biodiversity Studies, at Tel Aviv University.

Illustrative: Abu Tor, a mixed Jewish and Arab neighborhood in central Jerusalem, south of the Old City, December 16 2009. (Nati Shohat/Flash90/File)

Sofer, whose property interests have reportedly included a long-running claim to Jerusalem’s iconic Villa Salameh — used by the Belgian Consulate — hit headlines last year for lending to Jerusalem’s Bible Lands Museum around 100 Babylonian texts describing life for Jews exiled from Judea in the 6th-5th centuries BCE.

Neither of the two men responded to a request for comment from The Times of Israel.

The Givat Oranim and Abu Tor hillside deals are connected not only by Steinhardt and Sofer, but by Tzali Reshef, a commercial lawyer, former Labor Party lawmaker and co-founder of the dovish organization Peace Now.

Reshef is CEO of Arledan Investments Ltd, which has developed residential projects in Givat Oranim in the past, according to the company’s website.

He is also a partner at the Reshef and Shiff Law Firm, which represents Steinhardt and Sofer in the Abu Tor hill deal, via partner Jonathan Shiff.

The law firm’s website cites its expertise in the “variety of possibilities for purchase of homes, such as outright ownership, long-term leaseholds from the government or from other entities such as churches.”

Arledan Investments Ltd is also indirectly connected to Kronty Investments Ltd in that the former leased land from the patriarchate many years ago on the Habonim beach on the Sea of Galilee in the north of Israel, part or all of which was subsequently bought by Kronty from the church.

Because of the uncertainty over lease renewals by anonymous companies such as Kronty and Oranim, buyers are apprehensive about purchasing properties on land that the companies own and property values there have slumped.

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

The Justice Ministry has formed a committee to look into protecting leaseholders on such lands — at least 1,500 of them in the capital alone — and one lawmaker, Rachel Azaria of Kulanu, is trying to advance legislation that will transfer tracts of those lands to the state in return for compensation to their private owners.

More than 1,000 affected residents have already signed onto a campaign committee.

The patriarch himself, Theophilus III, is currently representing all the churches of the Holy Land in an unprecedented international tour to whip up opposition to what the churches see as interference in their rights to manage their own properties. This, they claim, is tantamount to changing a status quo that has determined relations between church and state for decades.

At a press conference last Thursday, the patriarch said the status quo “that has safe-guarded our religious freedoms and provided access to the most holy places for all people is being dangerously undermined.”

“Recently, we have seen the emergence of a trend that threatens to undermine the Christian presence and destabilize the peace of the holy city of Jerusalem,” he said. “The status quo, rules that have guaranteed the rights of Jews, Christians, and Muslims to live, flourish, and trade together, in Jerusalem for centuries, is in grave danger… If we do not act soon it will be too late and the outcome will be catastrophic.”

Also on the patriarch’s agenda of urgent issues to discuss with foreign leaders is an Israeli district court’s decision in August to uphold a set of real estate deals for two hotels near the Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem’s Old City, struck between officials from the Greek Orthodox Church under the previous patriarch with an Israeli right-wing group.

Those deals have hit a particularly sensitive nerve with Arab Christians and with Palestinians as a whole, because the properties are in East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians hope will be the capital of their future state.

The patriarch has already visited the pope and the king of Jordan, and visited the UK on Friday to meet with the archbishop of Canterbury.

The Greek Orthodox Church is one of the biggest private landowners in the country. Since the 1950s, it has leased large tracts of land to Israel, which have since been developed.

Its sales of land to private investors, over the past five years or so, only became known to the public in July.

In addition to Oranim Ltd and Kronty Investments Ltd, a company called Nayot Komemyut Investments has purchased 570 dunams (140 acres) in the upscale neighborhoods of Talbieh, Nayot and Rehavia in central Jerusalem.

Another company, Saint Ventures Limited, which is registered on the Caribbean island of St. Vincent, has scooped up more than 700 dunams of land (172 acres) in Caesarea, while a third — Bona Trading – also Caribbean-registered, has acquired some six dunams (1.5 acres) of real estate around coastal Jaffa’s clock tower.

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