The Jerusalem District Court on Wednesday denied a final request by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate to block the transfer of church property in Jerusalem to a Jewish settler group, after a disputed contract for the sale of the property was signed in 2004.
The court had ruled earlier that the Ateret Cohanim organization had a valid contract for the purchase of the property.
Wednesday’s ruling marks the end of the Greek Orthodox Church’s 16-year legal battle challenging the validity of the sale of the property in the Old City to the right-wing Jewish organization, which seeks to increase Jewish presence in East Jerusalem. The decision will also pave the way for Ateret Cohanim to renew its efforts to evict the Palestinians who are in possession of two of the properties, the Imperial Hotel and the Petra Hotel, the large buildings near Jaffa Gate.
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In 2004, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Jerusalem signed a contract with Ateret Cohanim for the sale of three buildings – including the two hotels, which exist on what is considered a strategic location at the entrance to the Old City. The sale sparked strong opposition within the church and led to the unprecedented removal of the church patriarch at the time, Irineos I.
His successor, Theophilos III, attempted to challenge the validity of the sale and to have it rescinded, but the district court ruled that it was valid. On appeal to the Supreme Court, the court confirmed the district court’s decision and ruled that the church had not met its burden of proving that the contract was invalid. Supreme Court Justice Isaac Amit did note, however, that there were “shadows and black holes in the process that led to the signing of the agreements.”
The church had shown that the buildings were sold for vastly less than they were worth and that individuals associated with the church received funds from Ateret Cohanim outside of the formal sales transaction.
Following the Supreme Court’s decision, the patriarchate filed a request for a retrial in the district court based on the affidavit of an individual by the name of Ted Bloomfield, who had been hired by Ateret Cohanim in the 1990s, and who stated that Ateret Cohanim had given bribes to senior officials from the church patriarchate on a regular basis. He also alleged that there had been offers of bribes of a sexual nature and that an appraiser’s opinion in the case had been concealed from the court.
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In denying the request for the retrial on Wednesday, Jerusalem District Court Judge Moshe Bar-Am ruled in part that the church had produced Bloomfield’s affidavit too late in the proceedings. The judge stated that the church could have obtained his testimony prior to the trial and noted that Bloomfield’s allegations had appeared in Haaretz’s coverage of the case two and a half years ago.
The judge also said that Bloomfield’s allegations didn’t relate directly to the 2004 sale of the property in question but rather to prior business contacts that never came to fruition.
Wednesday’s ruling leaves the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate with no legal grounds on which to prevent the transfer of the property. Recently, Patriarch Theophilos III’s efforts to head off the eviction of its current occupants included diplomatic pressure on Israel. The issue was raised, for example, on a visit in January to Israel by President Vladimir Putin of Russia, where Orthodox Christianity is the dominant religion.
In response to the ruling, the patriarchate said in a statement, "The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate presented the court with a host of new evidence of delinquent behavior, including extortion, fraud and deception. The trial examined the evidence and without allowing it to be heard. Therefore, the court's ruling came as a surprise, and it was received this morning within less than 24 hours from the conclusion of the hearing on the matter, without the court examining the evidence and without allowing it to be heard."
"We believe that the court was wrong in its decision and intend to appeal to the Supreme Court. We believe that after reviewing the evidence, the Supreme Court will accept our case and reverse the district court's decision," he added.
During the legal proceedings, associates of Ateret Cohanim refrained from taking over the buildings and made use of Palestinian companies to run the hotels. Ateret Cohanim is now seeking to take the possession of the buildings.