The Knesset Ministerial Committee for Legislation is expected to approve a bill Sunday allowing the state to appropriate lands in Israel sold by churches to anonymous buyers since the start of the decade.
The advancement of the legislation, which was proposed by Kulanu MK Rachel Azaria and is backed by the Justice Ministry, is being fiercely opposed by church leaders, Haaretz reported.
The bill was proposed by Azaria, a former deputy mayor of Jerusalem, after it was revealed during last summer that the Greek Orthodox patriarchate of Jerusalem had sold to then-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.
“The law is meant to provide an answer to thousands of residents of Jerusalem and other cities who one morning woke up and discovered the apartments they bought are located on land sold to an unknown buyer. We won’t allow any private individuals or even foreigners to purchase such large swaths of land in the capital city of Israel,” she said.
The church has strongly condemned the bill, telling Haaretz that the legislation would “mortally harm the status of the Christian minority in Israel.”
“The bill will expropriate from the churches in Israel the elementary right to make use of land they own legally. This is an unprecedented attack on the religious status quo and the right to property by the state,” the patriarchate said.
“The State of Israel is underhandedly advancing a sweeping and destructive law. How would the state respond if the property of Jewish minorities in other states in the world was stolen under the cover of national laws?”
The Greek Orthodox patriarchate said it would meet with the heads of other churches in the country to discuss their next moves in response to the bill and church leaders were expected to hold a press conference Sunday outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem’s Old City.
While there were initial fears that the 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.
The houses and apartments in question are located on previously church-owned land in the Jerusalem neighborhoods of Givat Oranim (now owned by 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.
Sue Surkes contributed to this report.