Supreme Court upholds Greek church sales to far-right group, ending legal battle

Top court backs earlier district court ruling rejecting retrial bid. Patriarchate vows to continue supporting Palestinian tenants who face potential eviction

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

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

The Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld a lower court’s decision not to block the transfer of rights to three buildings in the Old City to a right-wing Jewish group, exhausting all recourse for the Greek Orthodox church after a drawn-out legal battle.

The decision deals a final blow to the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate’s efforts to fight a 2004 sale of leases for two hotels near the Jaffa Gate and a third property in the Christian Quarter.

The properties were purchased by Ateret Cohanim, a far-right group involved in buying properties in Arab parts of Jerusalem in order to establish a Jewish presence.

The sale triggered Palestinian anger and led to the dismissal of Patriarch Irineos I the following year. He has protested his innocence.

Ateret Cohanim was accused of using shell companies to buy the three properties, setting off years of legal wrangling amid accusations by the Patriarchate that the purchase was fraudulent.

However, justices Daphne Barak Erez, David Mintz and Shaul Shohat said they found “no error” in a 2020 Jerusalem District Court ruling rejecting a church request to reopen the case based on what it said was new evidence of “delinquent behavior, which includes extortion and fraud.”

The church blasted Wednesday’s decision as “unfair” and without “any legal logical basis.”

It condemned Ateret Cohanim as a “radical organization” that had used “crooked and illegal methods to acquire Christian real estate” at a crucial Jerusalem site.

The church’s lawyer, Asaad Mazawi, told AFP Thursday that the ruling marked “a very sad day.”

“We are talking about a group of extremists that want to take the properties from the churches, want to change the character of the Old City and want to invade the Christian areas,” he said.

The Petra Hotel near to the Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem’s Old City. (Gabrielw.tour, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons)

The Wednesday ruling was focused narrowly on whether the church’s claims met the legal threshold for a retrial, and did not speak to the merit of the competing claims, the justices said.

A Patriarch statement said that it would continue to support Palestinian tenants in the properties and would remain “unwavering in its battle to curb the racist policy and the agenda of the extremist right wing in Israel.”

Ateret Cohanim was earlier reported to be preparing to evict the tenants from the property.

According to earlier 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 — located between the Jaffa Gate and the Old City’s Arab market — and $55,000 to lease a third property called Muzamiya House, in the Christian Quarter.

Property sales in Jerusalem are some of the most politically fraught in the world.

Israel took over mainly Palestinian 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.

Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III arrives at the Church of the Nativity, built atop the site where Christians believe Jesus Christ was born, to celebrate Christmas according to the Eastern Orthodox calendar, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, January 6, 2019. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)

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.

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.

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