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Israeli Gesture to Secure Release of Woman Jailed in Russia Could Spell Trouble in Jerusalem

No, Israel isn't giving Putin a church in return for high-profile prisoner Naama Issachar, but the move could cause problems for Israel with all the other Christian denominations in the city

Benjamin Netanyahu and Vladimir Putin at the inauguration of the Siege of Leningrad memorial, Jerusalem, January 23, 2020.
Amit Shabi/POOL

Israel did not give a church to the Russian government in return for releasing Naama Issachar. So what did happen with the Church of St. Alexander Nevsky in the Old City of Jerusalem? Why is this a diplomatic achievement for Israel? And how could this cause problems for Israel with all the other Christian denominations in Jerusalem?

The Alexander Nevsky Church stands next to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the Old City. It is the most important Russian holding among Jerusalem’s holy sites and a must-see for millions of pilgrims. The church was built in the late 19th century with donations from Russian believers and pilgrims. It has been run since then by the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society, headed by Russian dukes and church officials.

The problems began with the split in the Russian Orthodox Church in the wake of the Russian Revolution in 1917. The revolution forced the heads of the church to choose sides on whether to support the new Bolshevik regime, despite its clearly stated anti-religious stance – or to come out against the Communist regime. The supporters of the revolution became the “Red Church,” while its opponents split off and founded the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, known as the “White Church,” which was based mostly on Russian emigres in the West.

The British, during the Palestine Mandate period, recognized the White Church as the rightful owner of Russian religious assets in the Holy Land, but in 1948 Israel recognized the Red Church – and handed over these properties inside Israel to it. The Jordanians continued with the British policy and recognized the White Church, and its ownership of Russian religious properties in East Jerusalem and the West Bank – including the Alexander Nevsky Church.

In 2007, the two churches signed The Act of Canonical Communion to heal the schism in Moscow, under the auspices of the Moscow Patriarchate. But the Imperial Orthodox Society that controls the Nevsky Church did not completely accept the reconciliation between the two churches or the authority of the Red Church over it, and has remained somewhat autonomous. The society, which actually runs the church, is headed by Nikolai Goffman-Vorontsov, who lives in Germany. Russia has been increasing its pressure to receive the church building in recent years.

A view of the entrance to the Alexander Nevsky Church in Jerusalem, January 23, 2020.
Ohad Zwigenberg

This is not the first time Israel has used historic properties in Jerusalem as means to find favor with Putin and his government. In 2008, then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s government transferred Sergei’s Compound, near the Russian Compound, in the center of the capital, to the Russian government. But while Israel officially owned the property of Sergei’s Compound and the Russian Compound, the Alexander Nevsky Church does not belong to Israel – and Israel has no right to give it away.

The way to satisfy the Russians was to agree to their request to open a proceeding to re-register the ownership of the Nevsky Church. The Russians submitted documents to the property registrar of the Land Registry in the Justice Ministry, including a cooperative agreement between the Red and White churches, in which the White Church recognized the Red Church’s ownership of the Russian holy sites in Jerusalem. The Russian request is stuck in the Justice Ministry, it seems intentionally.

In the meantime, the Imperial Orthodox Society turned to Israel and submitted a detailed document to the National Security Council explaining the changes in ownership of the church over the years, and why the Russian Federation has no rights to the property.

Two months ago, the Israeli government set up a team headed by Environmental Protection Minister Zeev Elkin, who also holds the Jerusalem affairs portfolio, and whose goal is to improve Israel’s relations with Russia by implementing a number of confidence-building measures. As opposed to some of the reports in the media, there is no deal of “the church in return for Naama,” said a senior official. “But it was clear that it was impossible to make progress without improving the atmosphere with the Russians.”

Part of the reason for the poor relations was the incident of the Russian spy plane that was shot down by Syrian antiaircraft missiles after an Israeli attack in September 2018, as well as the extradition of the Russian hacker Aleksey Burkov to the United States. The crown jewel of the confidence-building efforts was the speeding up of the property registrar’s re-registering of the church. The re-registration does not include a request to evacuate the church of its present residents or replace its managers, though this also could happen at a later stage.

A view of the Alexander Nevsky Church in Jerusalem, January 23, 2020.
Ohad Zwigenberg

Three weeks ago, the registrar published an announcement about the registration of the church, calling on anyone with objections to submit them. The Orthodox Society is expected to oppose the move, partly on the claim that Israel has in the past already recognized its ownership of its properties in Jerusalem. In such a case, it is likely that the registrar will place the case in the hands of the courts.

The government, through the Attorney General’s Office, is expected to take the side of the Russians. For now, there are two other gestures concerning the status of other buildings in the capital that are already owned by the Russians – but they do not include transferring other buildings to Russian ownership.

But the Israeli goodwill gestures have a significance far beyond just the relations with Russia. First, on the right there are some who see the Russian request to Israel on the matter as a major diplomatic achievement in its own right, because such a request is de facto recognition of Israeli rule in the Old City and East Jerusalem. A senior official said that because of this, the Russians avoided approaching Israel on the matter for a number of years.

The second issue concerns the Israeli involvement in the disputes concerning the holy places in Jerusalem. Since 1967, Israel has tried not to intervene in the numerous disputes between the different Christian churches, groups and denominations in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and in the rest of the holy sites. The Israeli policy has always been “preserving the status quo.”

The exception was the police’s intervention on behalf of the Ethiopian Church in 1970, when the police aided the Ethiopians in their attempt to take control of the Deir al-Sultan Monastery on the roof of the compound of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which had been under the sway of the Copts.

Russian nuns at the Alexander Nevsky Church in Jerusalem, January 23, 2020.
Ohad Zwigenberg

This was an important gesture to the Ethiopians during their diplomatic honeymoon with Israel at the time, and at the same time a message to Egypt, the patron of the Coptic Church, during the period of the War of Attrition between Israel and Egypt. The issue of Deir al-Sultan is still a major point of dispute between all the parties. Israel’s intervention now between two Russian church groups on an issue of holy real estate could open the way for many other demands from countries and churches for Israel to intervene on their behalf in a dispute with another church. It is quite possible that Egypt will be the first to ask, and demand the return of Deir al-Sultan to the Coptic Church.