In recent weeks, it has come to light that the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate sold hundreds of acres of land in Israel to foreign buyers.
The Church’s choice to sell a vast amount of its property in Jerusalem, Jaffa and Caesarea has stirred up anger, surprise and feelings of betrayal — and concerns many church parishioners, individual Jewish and Arab property owners, as well as Israeli government bodies such as the Jewish National Fund (JNF) and the Israel Land Authority (ILA).
The issue of land and land ownership in Israel is complex and runs deeper than the issue of border disputes and the obvious, ongoing conflict. The property laws that are in place in Israel now date back to the Turkish regime. Under Turkish rule, the Ottoman Land Code of 1858 dictated that land would be owned nationally and could only be leased and not sold. Buying land granted the buyer lessee rights but not ownership rights.
This law did not come to an end in 1917 when the British defeated the Ottoman army paving the way for the British administration to take over the region in the early 1920s. Throughout the duration of the British Mandate, this law was upheld. It did not end in 1948 when Israel was declared a State but in 1960, the Israel Land Administration was created and this newly formed body ratified the Ottoman Land Code of 1858 making it part of what is still known today in Israel as the Basic Laws.
The Israel Land Administration that eventually became the Israel Land Authority (ILA) is responsible for 93 percent of Israel’s lands and the remaining 7 percent is privately owned or under the protection of religious authorities.
The ILA are the biggest landowners in Israel followed by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate. The Church leases land to the Jewish National Fund in 99 year contracts, with possibilities to extend. Property owners who live on leased property were shocked to learn that the land had literally been sold from under them.
First to reach the press was the news of the sale of 123 acres of Greek Orthodox land in Jerusalem. Then the revelation that 172 acres of Church land in Caesarea had also been sold. In the coastal city of Jaffa, south of Tel Aviv, the Church has now sold prime real estate around the iconic landmark clock tower that dates back to the Ottoman Empire.
Government sources are adamant that the deals were made without their knowledge and are angered that Israel was not given first option to buy.
The private investors have been named as Bona Trading and Saint Ventures Limited — both Caribbean-registered tax-haven companies, and a third private company has bought the land in Jaffa. In Jerusalem and Jaffa, the sale of properties in question affects private home owners who are unsure how the new owners of the land will proceed with their leases.
In Caesarea, the sold land includes a vast portion of the Caesarea National Park which brings in much revenue for Israel, and also involves vast archaeological and restorative work invested under the auspices of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA).
Reactions from all parties involved is varied. The Justice Ministry will be convening with relevant authorities such as the ILA, IAA, JNF and Israel Parks Authority to see if some kind of intervention is possible and see if there is a way forward. The Church has accused the JNF of not showing any interest in renewing its lease. Church representatives say that the sales, especially in Jerusalem, were for re-purchasing properties allegedly sold illegally by the former patriarch Irineos, who was deposed for his role in those sales.
On the other side of the border, Palestinians are fuming at the decisions of the current patriarch, Theophilos III, because they had their sights set on that land being part of their capital. They are calling for his resignation.
KNI spoke to two Christian Jaffa residents who said they are angered but not surprised.
“The land is not the property of the priests but since they are the ones who have the papers they do what they want,” one told us on condition of anonymity.
The other, who also did not want to be named, said, “We Christians have nobody to protect us. They are thieves and businessmen and they work with the Israeli government to steal from us.”