Russia expresses ‘deep concern’ over Jerusalem church land ruling

Remarks come amid deterioration in ties following evidence of Russian atrocities in Ukraine and growing antisemitic rhetoric from Russian leaders

The Imperial Hotel next to Jaffa Gate in the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem's Old City on November 29, 2019. (Gali Tibbon/AFP)
The Imperial Hotel next to Jaffa Gate in the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem's Old City on November 29, 2019. (Gali Tibbon/AFP)

Russia said Wednesday it was “deeply concerned” after Israel’s top court ruled earlier this month that a Jewish settler group’s purchase of an East Jerusalem property from the Greek Orthodox Church was legal.

The Ateret Cohanim organization, which promotes Jewish residency in East Jerusalem, bought three buildings from the church in a controversial deal struck in secret in 2004. The church then submitted a petition against Ateret Cohanim, claiming the properties were acquired illegally and without its permission, but the High Court ruled in favor of the group.

“We are deeply concerned about the situation regarding the Christian presence in Jerusalem,” Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said in a statement.

“Such a decision is predictably detrimental to interfaith peace and raises legitimate concerns about the position of the Christian community in the Holy Land,” she added.

Ties between Moscow and Jerusalem have been under particular stress in recent months since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Israel tried to walk a fine line between Moscow and Kyiv but has become progressively more critical of Russia as evidence emerged of Russian atrocities and in light of growing antisemitic rhetoric from Russian leaders.

In early May, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov claimed that “Hitler also had Jewish blood” and that “some of the worst antisemites are Jews.” Russia’s foreign ministry doubled down on the remarks days later, saying Jews cooperated with Nazis and that Israel supports the “neo-Nazi regime” in Ukraine.

People walk outside the Alexander Nevsky Church in Jerusalem’s Old City, on January 20, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

In April, Russia asked Israel to hand over ownership of the contested Alexander Nevsky Church in Jerusalem after the transfer — approved by the previous Israeli government — was halted.

The Greek Orthodox Church is the largest and wealthiest church in the Holy Land, commanding massive real estate holdings dating back hundreds of years. It faces regular accusations of selling or leasing properties to Israel in predominantly Palestinian areas.

Israel captured mainly 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.

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