Putin Asks Bennett to Hand Over Jerusalem Church After Court Ruling

The Church of St. Alexander Nevsky was meant to be transferred to Russia as part of a deal to win the release of the Israeli-American Naama Issachar, but a court halted the move

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
The entrance to the Church of St. Alexander Nevsky in Jerusalem's Old City, in 2020.
The entrance to the Church of St. Alexander Nevsky in Jerusalem's Old City, in 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

Russian President Vladimir Putin has sent a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, requesting that he authorize transferring control of Jerusalem’s Church of St. Alexander Nevsky to Moscow, Israeli sources said on Monday.

They said Israel was handling the matter, but did not elaborate further.

The church, which is located in the Old City, was supposed to be handed over to Russia as part of a deal two years ago to win the release of the Israeli-American Naama Issachar, who had been detained in Russia on drug charges.

However, a Jerusalem District Court last month halted the registration process, saying it should be done only under the supervision of Israel’s political echelon.

Sergei Stepashin, a former Russian prime minister, said last Friday at a conference at Sergei's Courtyard in Jerusalem’s Russian Compound that Putin would be sending the letter.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Russian President Vladimir Putin speaking during their meeting in Sochi, Russia, in October.Credit: Evgeny Biyatov/ AP

Stepashin is chairman of the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society, one of the organizations responsible for Russian holy sites in Israel.

“We are fighting for the return of St. Alexander Nevsky, and it’s a really tough one,” he was quoted as saying by the Russian Interfax news agency.

Stepashin said Moscow has been working for the past five years to have the compound transferred to its control. “We found the historic documents,” he said, “but a situation arose with Ukraine, and Israel has acted as expected: Trying to please everyone both here and there – what’s called ping-pong.”

The Church of St. Alexander Nevsky is located adjacent to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. It was constructed at the end of the 19th century and is regarded as among the most important Russian holdings in the so-called holy basin and a destination for pilgrims.

After the 1917 Russian Revolution, Russian émigrés living in the West assumed control of the church, but for years the Kremlin has sought to return it to the Russian government. After Issachar was freed in January 2020 from a Russian jail, the Israeli Justice Ministry’s Land Registry began the process of transferring control of the church to Moscow.

The swap was never officially acknowledged, thus the Jerusalem District Court said that if it is going to proceed the Israeli government must supervise the transfer, not the Land Registry or the court itself, due to the church’s status as a holy site.

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.

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