Bill would 'jeopardize' Christians, cause 'grave reactions'

World Council of Churches warns Israel, backs Patriarchate over land deals

Amid controversy over secretive deals, body that speaks for 560 million Christians tells government to drop bill to limit churches’ rights to buy, sell, lease their holdings

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

The Imperial Hotel at the Jaffa Gate, the lease to which was sold to the right-wing Ateret Cohanim organization and is the subject of an appeal by the Greek Orthodox Patriarch.  (Shmuel Bar-Am)
The Imperial Hotel at the Jaffa Gate, the lease to which was sold to the right-wing Ateret Cohanim organization and is the subject of an appeal by the Greek Orthodox Patriarch. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

An organization that represents 560 million Christians in more than 100 countries called on the government of Israel on Wednesday to halt the progress of a bill aimed at clipping churches’ rights to buy, sell and lease their own lands as they wish and to intervene in a highly controversial set of property deals in East Jerusalem which is currently the subject of a Supreme Court appeal.

Following a meeting with the Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilus lll in Amman, the Executive Committee of the World Council of Churches issued a strongly worded statement saying that it had “heard with concern from the heads of the churches in Jerusalem of the ways in which church institutions and properties in Jerusalem are threatened as a result of a combination of contracts of disputed legality, the efforts of radical settler groups, and policies of the Government of Israel.”

It warned that legislation aimed at giving Israel “the authority to override historic ecclesiastical landlord/ownership rights” should be withdrawn because it “would jeopardize the future long-term viability of the church and Christian community, in addition to provoking grave political reactions in local contexts.”

And it expressed “its solidarity and support for efforts to retain church ownership and control of properties in Jerusalem, including properties currently under dispute in the Jaffa Gate area, for the future survival of the Christian presence in the region.”

“The Executive Committee calls on the Government of Israel to stop and refrain from any such initiatives that may upset this important foundation for inter-communal relations in the city and region,” the statement said.

The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate has been under intense fire from both Israelis and Palestinians since revelations began to surface in July of a raft of patriarchate land sales to anonymous overseas companies.

The Greek Orthodox Patriarch, Theophilus lll, meets with Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades and senior clergy, November 9, 2017. (Courtesy)

The Patriarch has been undertaking an unprecedented international tour, backed by all the churches in the Holy Land, to fight two initiatives in particular.

The first is a bill being advanced by lawmaker Rachel Azaria (Kulanu) to enable the government to confiscate these lands and compensate the buyers.

The second concerns a set of controversial real estate deals struck before Theophilus became patriarch between an official from the Greek Orthodox Church and an Israeli right-wing group, Ateret Cohanim, which acquires properties with the aim of settling Jews in Jerusalem’s Old City. The properties bought by the Israeli group include two hotels just inside Jaffa Gate in the heart of the Christian Quarter.

The Jaffa Gate deal so infuriated Palestinians — who hope that East Jerusalem will one day be the capital of a future Palestinian state under a peace deal — that it led to the sacking of Theophilus’ predecessor.

Theophilus has appealed to the Supreme Court against a lower court’s ruling that upheld the deals. He claims that the deals were made fraudulently and should therefore be canceled.

The WCC is a fellowship of 349 Orthodox, Protestant, Anglican and United churches which works closely with the Roman Catholic Church, and in increasing cooperation with the World Evangelical Alliance and the Pentecostal World Fellowship.

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