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Greek Orthodox Church loses appeal on leases to settler group

Israel's Supreme Court validated a controversial deal by the Greek Orthodox Church to lease real estate in Jerusalem's Old City to the pro-settlement group Ateret Cohanim.
Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Metropolitan Theophilos leads Easter Sunday Mass at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City April 28, 2019. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun - RC136C91C440

RAMALLAH, West Bank — The Israeli Supreme Court earlier this month ruled against an appeal by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate to rescind a deal to lease three of its real estate properties in Jerusalem’s Old City to Ateret Cohanim, a pro-settlement organization working to establish a Jewish majority in East Jerusalem. The court's June 10 ruling validated Ateret Cohanim's leasing of the properties through three front companies for a renewable 99-year period.

The deal, signed in 2004, was made public in 2005, when Maariv published an article on the lease of the church-owned Petra Hotel and Imperial Hotel, located on Umar Ibn al-Khattab Plaza at Jaffa Gate, and Muzamiya House, in Bab al-Huta neighborhood, north of Al-Aqsa Mosque. Patriarch Iranaios was relieved of his position in May 2005 and demoted to the rank of monk after being accused of permitting the transfer of the properties to the Israelis through former finance director Nikolas Papadimos, who held power of attorney and signed the deals.

In 2008, Ateret Cohanim filed a lawsuit against the patriarchate, demanding that it turn over the properties as stipulated in the agreements. The Jerusalem District Court issued a ruling in July 2017 upholding the deal, and later that year, in October, the patriarchate appealed to the Supreme Court, which ruled that the church had failed to prove that the deal had been reached fraudulently either through the actions of Iranaios, Papadimos or Ateret Cohanim.

The most recent decision raised the ire of the Palestinian Orthodox community at the patriarchate. In a joint statement on June 14, the Orthodox Central Council, the committee following up on the 2017 National Conference to Support the Arab-Orthodox Cause, and the Arab-Orthodox Youth movement called for a committee of inquiry to try to counter the risks and repercussions of the Jaffa Gate deal and to hold to account those involved in it, including the church's lawyers.

Orthodox Central Council member Jalal Barham asserted to Al-Monitor that the patriarchate had been negligent in failing to provide sufficient evidence to the District Court. He also explained that the patriarchate and Ateret Cohanim had reached a verbal agreement in December 2009 that the tenants of the properties in question be excluded from the case as defendants and that the two of them continue to see the case through the courts. The Jerusalem District Court agreed to their petition to do so and struck the 22 tenants from the suit in January 2010. He further said that the patriarchate had already received the entire amount of the leases set out in the deal: $500,000 for the Petra Hotel, $1.25 million for the Imperial Hotel, and $55,000 for the Muzamiya House.

Barham accused the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Jordan of not giving the case the attention it deserves, claiming that neither had addressed it with the current patriarch, Theophilos III, whose appointment required Israeli, PA and Jordanian acquiescence.

“The National Conference to Support the Arab-Orthodox Cause of 2017 recommended that Patriarch Theophilos III be dismissed and held accountable for all of the decisions he made to the advantage of Israel,” he said, referring to the handling of the case in the Israeli courts. “We presented the recommendations of the conference, in which all of the Palestinian factions partook, to the PLO Central Council in January 2018 and the PLO National Council in May 2018. They both decided to take the necessary measures to protect the endowments and halt their liquidation and transfer to Israel.” He noted that this did not happen.

Barham explained that in August 2017 more than 390 Palestinian figures had filed a complaint with the Palestinian Authority's prosecutor general against Theophilos, requesting that he inquire into the transfer of properties in East Jerusalem. He added that the 500-page submission includes documents allegedly proving that Theophilos III had a stake in the transfer of the church properties. A frustrated Barham asked, “Why has such a complaint not been dealt with so far, although the general prosecutor has all of the needed legal requirements in hand?”

Speaking to Al-Monitor, Jerusalemite Walid Doujani said his family has been leasing the Imperial Hotel, which was built in 1893, from the Orthodox Church since 1949. He added that he expects to receive a request to leave and handover the hotel in the upcoming days or weeks, explaining “I have a lease contract in writing which my father and the church signed for a period of three generations, passed down to my grandchildren until they die.” He has been running the hotel since 1997.

Ateret Cohanim has tried to evict tenants from the other properties it has acquired using the same methods. In the current case, those who run the two hotels are apparently protected from arbitrary eviction under Ottoman law governing their tenancies, but the rights of those living in Muzamiya House are unclear. 

Doujani said that the yearly rental fee of the hotel totals close to $69,500. He has been unable to pay the patriarchate since 2009, and he said, the church is well aware and okay with that. He noted that 2009 is the year Ateret Cohanim and the church agreed to strike the tenants from the case. The hotel is not cost effective as a business, Doujani asserted, remarking that his family is holding on to it because of its historical status and location in the Old City, making the hotel, he says, no less important than Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

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