The Jerusalem District Court rejected a final request on Wednesday by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate to block the transfer of church property in Jerusalem to Jewish real estate consultants Ateret Cohanim. The ruling drew controversy following a dispute over the contract for the sale of the property was originally signed in 2004.
The court ruled that the Ateret Cohanim organization had a valid contract for the purchase of the property. The purchase of two Christian owned hotels inside the Old City, near the Jaffa Gate, was originally approved by the Supreme Court 16 years ago.
The hotels will be converted into Jewish owned apartment buildings.
Sixteen years ago, the Greek Orthodox Church sold three properties in the Old City of Jerusalem to Jewish investors. Despite a long legal process resulting in a Jerusalem District Court ruling the sales were perfectly legal and binding, the sale is still being contested and the residents refuse to leave. Perhaps the worst aspect of the saga is the misrepresentation by major media of several aspects of the story.
Old City Real Estate
In three separate transactions in 2004, foreign real-estate corporations negotiated with the Greek Patriarchate which owned properties in the Old City of Jerusalem. Berisford Investments Limited purchased a 99-year lease for the four-story Petra Hotel located at Omar Ibn al-Hatab Square, between the Jaffa Gate and the Arab market. The $500,000 agreement included an option for an additional 99 years. In a separate transaction, Richards Marketing Corporation purchased the two-story Imperial Hotel adjacent to the Petra Hotel for $1.25 million. The purchase included with it the ground-floor stores. Gallow Global Limited acquired the rights to Beit Azmiya, in the Bab a-Khuta neighborhood of the Old City for $55,000.
Ateret Cohanim was instrumental in locating the properties and facilitating their acquisitions.
In an article titled “’We Go Back 800 Years’: Palestinian Fights Settler NGO’s Takeover of Jerusalem Hotel” published on Saturday, Haaretz wrote about new developments in the story. It should be noted that despite the claims made in the headline, the new owners are not a non-governmental organization (NGO). Though the term “settler” is ambiguous, the new owners are not based in Israel and their “takeover” amounts to a legal purchase of the properties in question.
In the wake of the legal decision affirming their purchase, the owners, represented by Richard Marketing Corp. of the Virgin Islands, began to move forward in removing the current tenants. The initial court decision had ordered the previous owners to do so but they did not. The second court decision had ordered the residents to pay rent to the new owners, effective from when the sale was completed in 2005. The tenants refused and their debt now stands at $2.8 million, which they are refusing to pay.
The Imperial Hotel was built in the 19th century by the Greek Orthodox Church. The management changed several times but in July 1948, during Israel’s War of Independence, Mohammed Taher Daoudi Dajani, father of the current manager, rented the building from the Church and his family has managed the hotel to this day.
Walid Dajani, the current manager of the Imperial Hotel, protested the sale in an interview with Haaretz.
“I have to prepare myself for battle,” Dajani said to Haaretz. “My family has been living in Jerusalem for 800 years. That’s pages of history and I want my name to be there. I will never give up. I am loyal and if I die, I will die loyal and happy.”
It should be noted that the court decision ordered the residents to leave the building, not Jerusalem. It should also be noted that despite the court ruling, Dajani has not paid rent to the new owners for 15 years, which he would surely be expected to do wherever he lives in Jerusalem.
An assessment admitted as part of the legal process showed that the rent demanded from Dajani is a reasonable amount for that property.
Greek Orthodox Church: Israeli Court Ruling is “Unlawful”
In an equally perplexing statement, the Greek Orthodox Church protested the court ruling in a statement released last Thursday.
“We cannot remain silent while access to our holy sites is threatened and the hope of a lasting peace is diminished. As a community of justice, we demand that the rule of law is upheld, and stand united against any attempt to take Church properties by unlawful measures or to forcefully evict innocent tenants,” the statement read.
“We warn against any such attempt, and we shall not fear to use all legitimate means to oppose and block this from occurring. We remain impassioned guardians of the status quo and will ensure that people of all faiths can flourish and thrive within the walls of this city.”
The statement did not specify which unlawful measure were used to to purchase the properties or demand the tenants pay rent. The Church also failed to specify which holy sites were being threatened.
Legal Sale Becomes Church Scandal That Brings Down Patriarchate
The initial sale, carried out under Irenaios Skopelitis, the 140th Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, created a scandal within the Greek Orthodox Church, leading to the dismissal of Irenaios in 2005 and his subsequent demotion to the rank of monk. Upon his dismissal, the Church declared the sales to be invalid. Theophilos III was elected as the new Patriarch later that year. After dismissal, Irenaios took up residence in the building of Jerusalem Patriarchate, refusing to leave the building from 2008-2015.
It was reported in the Hebrew language news Yediot Ahronoth that the Greek Orthodox Church plans on filing an additional petition to the court, that the sale of the property was based on bribery and the church figures who signed the deal were corrupt, immediately fleeing the country after signing the deal. The previous petition to the court was based on the same claim resulting in last month’s decision that there was insufficient evidence to support that claim.