PM again puts brakes on draft law to confiscate land sold by churches

Under pressure from furious church leaders and from head of powerful US congressional caucus, Netanyahu stops advancement of bill backed by justice minister

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III delivers a statement to the press announcing the closure of the Holy Sepulchre church as he stands next to the Custodian of the Holy Land Fr. Francesco Patton and Armenian Bishop Siwan, left, on February 25, 2018. (AFP/ GALI TIBBON)
Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III delivers a statement to the press announcing the closure of the Holy Sepulchre church as he stands next to the Custodian of the Holy Land Fr. Francesco Patton and Armenian Bishop Siwan, left, on February 25, 2018. (AFP/ GALI TIBBON)

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, as the Times of Israel can reveal, from the co-chairman of a powerful US congressional caucus established five years ago to advance the trilateral interests of Israel, Greece and Cyprus.

The committee’s discussion of the bill has been postponed for another week, although it is far from clear that it will not be put off yet again.

On Friday, the leaders of the Greek Orthodox, Catholic and Armenian churches — representing 13 church denominations — wrote to saying it was with “great disappointment” that they learned that Azaria’s “scandalous” and “disgraceful” bill was to be discussed by the Knesset legislation committee on Sunday.

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.

In the letter from the Churches, they reminded Netanyahu of his decision earlier this year to appoint senior Likud lawmaker and Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi to negotiate with church leaders and of a commitment he made in July not to allow any legislation to advance while those talks were taking place.

Hanegbi held his first meeting with church leaders on September 13 and reportedly told those present that legislation was off the table.

Deputy Attorney General Erez Kamenitz has been meeting with the developers to try to negotiate a deal.

Hanegbi’s appointment followed the churches’ shock closure of Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre in February to protest the draft legislation as well as moves by the Jerusalem Municipality at that time to freeze churches’ assets until they paid millions of shekels in what the city claims were unpaid taxes.

The Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilus lll announces the closure of the Holy Sepulchre Church in protest at Israeli policies, February 25, 2018. (Courtesy)

Believed by Orthodox and Catholics to be the place where Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is considered to be among the holiest places of worship for many Christians.

Church sources told the Times of Israel that they believe the solution for the homeowners lay with the KKL JNF Jewish National Fund.

In the case of the land in the upscale neighborhoods of Talbieh, Rehavia and Nayot, for example, the church signed three 99 year contracts with the KKL in the early 1950’s.

Those contracts give the KKL the right to extend the leases when they end in 2051 and 2052 — in the case of one contract for 49 years, and in the case of the other two, for periods to be negotiated, of up to 100 years.

They also spell out the mechanism for arbitration should the KKL and the landowners fail to agree on a price.

But Nava Bat-Zur, a co-founder of the main organization set up to fight for leaseholders’ rights, said “We’re not interested in dragging out this issue. We want to own the land and it’s the government that should buy it.”

Bat-Zur noted that the Israel Lands Authority had begun to offer the freehold to homeowners whose apartments were located on state-owned land in built up areas.

Leaseholders on former church land should have the same rights and opportunities, she said.

Bat-Zur’s home is located in the Givat Oranim neighborhood of the capital, on land sold by the Greek Patriarchate to David Sofer, a Jewish Israeli businessman living in London and his business partner, New York-based American billionaire, Michael Steinhardt.

“I put everything into buying our home and it’s the only thing I have to pass onto my children,” Bat-Zur said, reacting to recent criticism in some quarters that the church lands issue was a problem for the rich.

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