Greek Orthodox Church Quietly Selling Off Israeli Assets at Fire Sale Prices

A neighborhood in Jerusalem was sold for just a few million dollars, with the identity of the buyer kept secret

Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III
Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III Petros Karadjias/ AP

An anonymous company registered in a tax shelter paid $3.3 million for 240 apartments, a commercial center and open areas in the center of Jerusalem.

The deal, for what appears to be a ridiculously low price, was made by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, the second largest real estate owner in Israel, after the Israel Lands Authority. In recent years the Patriarchate has been quietly selling off its properties in various parts of the country to companies hidden in tax shelters, for sums so low one wonders whether the church is trying to get rid of its assets at any cost.

While the reason for the numerous sales and the low price remain a mystery, three agreements obtained by Haaretz shed some light on the transactions. For example, the lands sold in Jerusalem have meanwhile been resold to another company, also registered in a tax shelter. Also, some six dunams near the Clock Tower square in Jaffa, consisting of dozens of businesses, have been sold for a mere $1.5 million and 430 dunams in Caesarea, including large parts of the national park and amphitheater, were sold for only $1 million.

All the purchasers are foreign companies registered in tax shelters, so it is impossible to obtain information about their owners. In a few decades, when the existing leases for those lands expire, their fate will be determined by those unknown purchasers.

The church bought or acquired most of its lands during the 19th century. Traditionally the church didn’t sell its lands but leased them out, usually for 99 years, to public bodies like the Jewish National Fund or the Israel Lands Authority.

240 apartments, a commercial center and open areas in the center of Jerusalem were sold for $3.3 million

About six years ago, under the leadership of Patriarch Theophilos III, the Jerusalem Patriarchate made several land deals with private companies, reducing its lands considerably. As far as is known the church has sold off most of its lands in Jerusalem and part of its lands in Jaffa, Caesarea, Ramle, Nazareth and Tiberias, as well as individual buildings and apartments in Jerusalem and Jaffa.

The first large contract appears to have been signed in 2011, when the church leased hundreds of dunams in the Jerusalem neighborhoods of Talbieh, Rehavia and Nayot to a group of Israeli entrepreneurs named Nayot Komemiyut. About a year ago a contract was made to sell all those lands to the same group of entrepreneurs, now called “Nayot-Komemiyut Investments.” The only entrepreneur in the group who was identified was businessman Noam Ben David.

The two deals raised a panic among some 1,000 apartment owners in those neighborhoods, who risk losing their homes. Under the law, when the lease expires in about 30 years, these lands and apartments will be transferred to the new landlords and the residents will lose their property. In addition, real-estate prices in these areas have plummeted due to these deals, which makes it impossible for the residents to sell the properties.

Recently, following public pressure, the state and Jewish National Fund, which had originally leased the land from the church, started looking for a solution. Lawmaker Rachel Azaria (Kulanu) has sponsored a bill enabling the government to expropriate the lands sold by the church to prevent evicting the tenants. However, the bill is not considered likely to pass in its current version.

After the Jerusalem deal was publicized, other real estate deals of the church came to light. Some Patriarchate insiders, mainly in the Jaffa and northern communities as well as in Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, were furious. They blasted the deals as corrupt and destructive to the church’s status and ability to act on behalf of the Greek Orthodox community in Israel. Recently the opponents have called to boycott the patriarch and remove him from office.

430 dunams in Caesarea, including large parts of the national park and amphitheater, were sold for only $1 million

“We see the sale as an act of annihilating the Christian-Orthodox existence in Israel,” said Victor Zakak, head of the Christian Orthodox charity organization in Jaffa last month. Zakak was among the hundreds who demonstrated outside the Patriarchate offices in Jerusalem’s Old City.

“The land has been sold to all kinds of shell companies, fictitious, non-existent bodies,” he said.

According to the sales contracts obtained by Haaretz, the church sold lands in Jerusalem’s Givat Oranim to Kronti Investments Ltd., a company registered in the Virgin Islands, for $3.3 million dollars. The land consists of 27 dunams (6.7 acres), some 240 apartments and a large commercial center. One small apartment in this area can easily fetch 2 million shekels (about $570,000 dollars).

Although the lease on this area will expire only in 52 years, the residents are already impacted by the deal.

“As soon as the deal was made public prices dropped, sometimes by as much as 60 percent,” says Nava Bat Zur, a resident trying to unite the residents to action. “The property is impossible to sell. I bought the house for the full price without knowing there was any problem and now I’ll be left with nothing.”

Six dunams near the Clock Tower square in Jaffa, consisting of dozens of businesses, were sold for a mere $1.5 million

Meanwhile the landlord seems to have changed again. Five years after the first deal the land has been sold again, this time to a company called Oranim Limited, registered in the Cayman Islands. It is not known how much Oranim paid for the land.

In another deal signed in December 2013, six dunams of valuable commercial sites near Jaffa’s Clock Tower, as well as dozens of shops and apartments on Yefet, Beit Eshel and Shimon Hatzadik streets, were sold for $1.5 million to Bona Trading Ltd., a company registered in Saint Vincent and Grenadines in the Caribbean Sea.

“This isn’t a sale, it’s a theft,” says Peter Habash, an activist in the Jaffa Christian Orthodox community. “When you sell an asset for a fraction of its worth it doesn’t make sense.”

In August 2015, Senet Ventures inc. bought 430 dunams (106 acres) from the church in Caesarea in the most expensive area in Israel, for $1 million. Most of this land is in Caesarea’s national park, including the ancient amphitheater and lands belonging to Kibbutz Sdot Yam.

The lawyers representing Kronti Investments, Bona Trading and Senet Ventures and the Patriarchate declined to comment.