A real estate deal in Jerusalem has pitted the Greek Orthodox Church against Jews who want to live in Jerusalem and like many such conflicts, the real issue may go much deeper than money.
A Simple Purchase of Real Estate
The conflict concerns three separate transactions that took place 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.
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 a 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.
A Church Scandal
The transaction was the focus of a protracted court battle which resulted in a Jerusalem court decision last month that the sales were legal. The Greek Orthodox Church claimed that Irnaios was bribed, thereby invalidating the sales, a claim that was not supported by evidence and was rejected by the court.
An additional obstacle is being encountered at the Imperial Hotel. The initial court decision ordered the previous owners to vacate the property but they did not. The second court decision ordered the residents, managers of the hotel who rented the property from the Greek Orthodox Church, 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 in addition to refusing to vacate.
Real Estate as an Expression of Christian Anti-Semitism
BIN Publisher Rabbi Tuly Weisz interviewed Christian TV broadcaster Nathalie Blackham who is intimately familiar with the situation last week to discuss the conflict surrounding the sale.
In the interview, Rabbi Weisz stated that an additionally troubling aspect of the conflict is were the Greek Orthodox Church’s claim that “right-wing Jews are stealing the land from the Christians.”
“[They want to portray this] as another example of the persecution of Christians in the Middle-East, but this time by Israeli Jews,” Rabbi Weisz said. “By right-wing Orthodox Jews.”
The sad irony implicit in Rabbi Weisz’s observation is that Christians are indeed horribly persecuted in the region but Israel is the exception, a haven of plurality set in the midst of Arab Muslim intolerance.
Rabbi Weisz understood this conflict over real-estate to be part of a larger effort to “create a wedge between the Jewish community in Israel and our Christian friends.”
Blackham was in favor of Jewish land purchases, even of Church-owned properties.
“We know that when the Jewish people buy something it will be obviously free to everybody,” Blackham said, noting that in the 19th century, the majority of the residents of the Old City were Jewish.
“Jerusalem is Jewish, open to all the nations.” “They will bring more peace…We know that when the Jewish People want to come to Jerusalem, it is not just for them.”
Rabbi Weisz noted the history of discrimination in which, as the result of Arab violence, the British Mandate divided Jerusalem, assigning the smallest section to the Jews.
“Jews should not be discriminated against, especially in Jerusalem,” Rabbi Weisz stated. He related that several of his Christian friends in America contacted him, concerned about reports that Christians were being discriminated against, even spat upon in public, in the Old City. Rabbi Weisz assured the listeners that this was disinformation being disseminated to obfuscate the truth about the real-estate deal.
Rabbi Weisz noted that the simple facts of the case were that the Jews purchased the property.
“Christians have been persecuting Jews throughout history because of the belief that we are not entitled to rights, to living as Jews,” Rabbi Weisz said, accusing the Greek Orthodox Church of not recognizing the basic rights of Jews in Jerusalem.
“We call that replacement theology,” Rabbi Weisz said, giving a theological basis to the legal conflict.
Replacement theology is the belief that Christianity replaced Judaism in the covenant between Abraham and God and was a core tenet of Christianity. Subsequent to, and because of, the Holocaust, some mainstream Christian theologians and denominations have rejected replacement theology.
Blackham agreed, noting the difficult history of Christianity towards Judaism.
“We have layers and layers of anti-Semitism,” she admitted. “We have been brainwashed that now, the Christian is the one who rules. This is part of replacement theology. But when you read in the Bible, you see that God has given Israel to the Jewish people so that it will be a light unto the nations.”
“I didn’t say that,” Blackham stated. “God said so. We need to align again with what He is saying.”
The Conflict Between the Church and Israel is Growing
Indeed, the conflict between the Church and Israel goes much deeper than this one legal battle. The Greek Orthodox Church has extensive property holdings in Jerusalem and is the second-largest landowner in Israel after the Israel Lands Authority. In addition to numerous churches, seminaries and other properties used for religious and commercial purposes.
Their real estate interests have been the source of conflict with Israeli authorities in the past. In February 2018, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate led a three-day strike, claiming they were responding to anti-Christian measures by the Israeli government. The true source of the conflict was when the Jerusalem Municipality announced its plan to collect NIS 650 million ($186 million) in property taxes on 887 church-owned properties that were not being used as houses of worship.
In recent years, the Greek Orthodox Church sold large amounts of real estate to private investors as a way of erasing massive debts. The situation became even more volatile last summer when it was discovered that Theophilos personally approved additional land deals. Palestinian Christians in Israel and Jordan are now calling for Theophilos to be dismissed, and earlier this month, the Arab Central Orthodox Council called to dismiss Theophilos.
The conflict is not simply over money. The Palestinian Authority objects to the sales of properties to Jews in general and most particularly in the Old City of Jerusalem which they claim as their capital. PA law mandates the death penalty for the crime of selling land to Jews and there have been several instances of this penalty being carried out.
In a non-real estate conflict, the Greek Orthodox Church came out strongly against the Nation-State Law passed last year. The Catholic Ordinaries of the Holy Land released a statement last week stating their concern that the law would relegate non-Jewish citizens of Israel to a second-class status. The statement misrepresented the law which simply defined Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, and the right to self-determination in Israel would be unique to the Jewish people. It did not infringe on the rights of non-Jews in any way nor did it relegate them to second-rate status. It allowed for ethnic communities where every resident may preserve their culture and heritage.
Some experts believed the Greek Orthodox Church was, in fact, taking a political position, aligning with the Palestinian Authority, rejecting any advances that have been made in Jewish-Christian relations.