Israeli Court Freezes Russian Government Ownership of Jerusalem Church

Russia's release in 2020 of an Israeli convicted on drug charges during a stopover at a Moscow airport is thought to be linked to the now-stalled transfer of the Russian Orthodox church

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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Alexander Nevsky Church in Jerusalem's Old City, in 2020.
Alexander Nevsky Church in Jerusalem's Old City, in 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

The Jerusalem District Court halted the registration of ownership of Russian Orthodox Church property in the name of the Russian government on Thursday, saying the decision of ownership had to be made by the Israeli government.

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The registration of ownership was thought to be one of the terms under which Russia agreed about two years ago to the release of Naama Issachar, an Israeli convicted of drug smuggling after a quantity of hashish was allegedly found in her suitcase at a Moscow airport on a stopover between flights.

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Judge Mordechay Caduri ruled that it is the Israeli cabinet that should approve any transfer of ownership of the Alexander Nevsky church in Jerusalem’s Old City rather than the land registrar or the court, based on prevailing British Mandatory law that gives the government jurisdiction to decide land ownership disputes of holy sites.

The Alexander Nevsky church, which was built at the end of the 19th century and is considered the most important Russian holding in and around the Old City, is adjacent to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site of Jesus' crucifixion. During political upheavals in Russia during the 20th century, the church remained under the control of Russian exiles in the West. For years, the Kremlin exerted pressure to gain ownership of it.

The entrance to the Alexander Nevsky Church in the Old City of Jerusalem, in 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Following Issachar’s arrest in 2019 and the Israeli government’s contacts to secure her release, in January 2020, the Justice Ministry’s land registrar announced that the church property would be registered under the name of the Russian government. Issachar was released later that month and returned to Israel accompanied by the prime minister at the time, Benjamin Netanyahu. What Israel gave in exchange for her release was never officially disclosed.

The Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society, which has managed the church since it was built, filed objections to the transfer of ownership, which were rejected. It then filed an appeal, which was assigned to Judge Caduri.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, Benjamin and Sarah Netanyahu and mother of Naama Issachar, upon Issachar's release from Russian prison.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

In another development in the case, then-Prime Minister Netanyahu signed an order declaring that the church was a holy site, as defined by British Mandatory law, meaning that the government and not the courts are authorized to make any decisions regarding ownership disputes.

In his decision on Thursday, District Court Judge Caduri agreed with the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society’s claim that as a result of Netanyahu’s order, registration of ownership of the site was a matter for the Israeli government to handle. In July of last year, shortly after taking office as prime minister, Naftali Bennett appointed a ministerial committee, consisting of Housing Minister Zeev Elkin, Tourism Minister Yoel Razvozov and Religious Services Minister Matan Kahana, to address the case. The committee will now have to decide the issue of ownership.

Boris Lemper, the lawyer representing the Russian government, declined to comment, saying that he had not yet received Thursday’s court decision.

One of the lawyers representing the Orthodox Palestine Society, Shay Gimelstein, said, “We welcome the decision which heads off an illegal attempt by the Russian Federation to take control of [the church]. We have no doubt that any objective clarification procedure will conclude with the decision that the OPS … is the exclusive legal owner ….”

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