A long-simmering conflict between a Jewish settler group and the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate over the rights to three church buildings in Jerusalem’s Old City entered a new phase on Thursday when a Jerusalem District Court ruled that the case should be reopened.
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 between the two sides.
In August this year, the church filed its current lawsuit in a bid to overturn a Supreme Court decision upholding the sale of the leases. The Patriarchate claimed that it had “clear proof” of corruption in the deal that was originally signed for two Palestinian-run hotels located between the Jaffa Gate and the Old City’s Arab market, and another building in the Christian Quarter.
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 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.
The controversial deals, approved by Israel’s top court in June this year, triggered Palestinian anger and led to the 2005 dismissal of Patriarch Irineos I, who always claimed his innocence.
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, and $55,000 to lease a third property called Muzamiya House, also in the Old City.
A law firm representing the companies charged that Thursday’s ruling resulted from “an underhanded move by the Patriarchate,” claiming that the attorney representing its side in the matter had been ill.
The church wrote in its petition to the court that “The new evidence that the Patriarchate has obtained confirms that Ateret Cohanim and its companies forged documents and initiated court proceedings based on these forged documents, despite Ateret Cohanim’s knowledge that they were forged. The evidence shows that the suspicious deals of 2004 involved bribes by Ateret Cohanim, and all indications point to the bribes being paid to the then Patriarchate employee, Nicholas Papadimas.”