Right-wing Group Offered Greek Patriarch $4.5m for Jerusalem Property - and Ended Up Paying a Fraction

Greek Orthodox Patriarchate appealed to the High Court that the properties' sale prices were not unreasonable and that it had not been proven that Ateret Cohanim bribed church officials to advance the deals

Jerusalem's Petra and Imperial hotels. The properties are part of the Greek Orthodox Church's controversial real estate deals.
Emil Salman

A right-wing organization that promotes Jewish settlement in Arab parts of Jerusalem agreed to purchase a building from the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate over a decade ago for nine times the amount that it eventually paid, according to documents seen by Haaretz.

This was one of three deals made to sell property to the Ateret Cohanim association in 2004, which led to the ouster of the previous patriarch, Ireniaos, for corruption and offering the properties at too low a price.

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Last week, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate appealed to the High Court of Justice against the 2016 ruling by Jerusalem District Court that the properties’ sale prices were not unreasonable and that it had not been proven that Ateret Cohanim bribed church officials to advance the deals.

The new findings seem to strengthen suggestions that at least one of the deals, the purchase of the Petra Hotel in the Old City, was not reasonable. The findings show that the right-wing organization eventually paid far less than the amount it had agreed to pay eight years earlier.

Protests against the Greek Orthodox Church's massive asset sell-off to private investors in Jerusalem, September 2017.
Emil Salman

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According to the documents obtained by Haaretz, Ateret Cohanim negotiated in 1996 to buy the large, 30-room Imperial Hotel in the Old City, near the Jaffa Gate. Negotiations were held with a third party that had possession of the property. Ateret Cohanim agreed to pay 4.5 million dollars for protected tenant status for the property, i.e., to lease it for a limited period of time. Usually, the full cost of a property is 1.5 to 2 times the fee paid for protected tenant status.

The agreement was signed by Irving Moskowitz, the financial patron of Ateret Cohanim, who died in June 2016.

In a deal with the patriarchate eight years later, Ateret Cohanim also received a nearby building, the 12-room Petra Hotel. However, the 1996 deal contained no mention of an additional building. And according to another agreement Haaretz obtained, Ateret Cohanim also committed in the first deal to pay a broker’s fee of $225,000.

“If you take the small building [the Petra Hotel] into consideration, the broker’s fee and the key money, $500,000 is not nine times lower – it’s 20 times lower than what they agreed to pay,” a source close to the deal said. “You can think that this is the result of bureaucracy and a mess in the patriarchate, or you can think that someone worked hand-in-hand between Ateret Cohanim and patriarchate officials. I know what I think, and I have documentation in real time with regard to this,” the source said.

Patriarch Theophilos, who took over from Irenaios, is waging a public battle against Jerusalem District Court due to mounting criticism over land deals the church has made in recent years in West Jerusalem and other parts of Israel.

In light of the latter deals, the purchases in the Old City are considered a particularly sensitive issue to Arab members of the Greek Orthodox Church, both because a right-wing association purchased the properties and the strategic nature of these properties over the pre-1967 border in the Old City, near the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Ateret Cohanim did not respond to requests for comment.