In the silent St. Alexander Nevsky Church in Jerusalem’s Old City, an elderly nun wearing a white headscarf decorated with a small red cross stands before an altar, whispering psalms with a long list of names in front of her.
As cloistered from the whirlwind of modern geopolitics as the scene appears, the fate of this historic Russian Orthodox church is seemingly at the center of a diplomatic dispute.
The nun, together with 14 other sisters who live, work and maintain a 24-hour prayer vigil at this holy site, are all Ukrainian members of the Sisters of Mercy. And the ever-growing list of those receiving their prayers includes the victims of Russia’s five-month assault on Ukraine.
Across the small church, between the ritual items and archaeological artifacts, collection boxes can be found soliciting donations for war-torn areas – the nuns’ effort to assist fellow Sisters of Mercy back home in Ukraine “who work sacrificially every day to save people’s lives and health.”
At the same time, the church to which they devote their lives is a key chess piece in the political crisis between Israel and Russian President Vladimir Putin, who lays claim to the church and has long demanded its return. His frustration with the matter has frequently been cited as one of the reasons behind recent threats to close the Jewish Agency, shuttering its operations in his country. (A quasi-governmental body, the Jewish Agency helps and encourages Russian Jews make aliyah to Israel.)
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It is thought that Putin feels cheated, having come close to reclaiming possession of the church two years ago, when it is believed to have been quietly included in a deal with then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to win the release of Israeli-American Naama Issachar. She was serving a prison sentence after being caught with a small amount of drugs in her luggage at a Moscow airport during a stopover flight.
While no quid-pro-quo exchange of Issachar for the church was ever publicly acknowledged, she was freed in January 2020 as the Israeli Justice Ministry’s Land Registry simultaneously began the process of transferring control of the church to Moscow, announcing it would be registered under the name of the Russian government.
Why does Putin want the church so badly? Ask one of the Ukrainian nuns and she’ll say it is because it’s “the center of all that is holy,” declining to give her name because “I don’t speak for the church.”
Located in the heart of the Old City’s Christian Quarter, next to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the church was built in 1896 by the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society, run by Russian dukes and church officials, and named after a revered medieval Russian saint.
While the site was being excavated, ancient remnants were uncovered of an arched entrance. Christians believe this to be the “judgment gate” through which the procession leading Jesus to his death left the city.
The dispute over its ownership dates back to the 1917 Russian Revolution, when Russian Orthodoxy split into the “Red Church” – supportive of what was to become the Soviet Union – and the anti-communist “White Church,” also referred to as “the Russian Orthodox Church outside of Russia.”
The British, and then the Jordanians, who controlled East Jerusalem throughout the first half of the 20th century, recognized the White Church as the legal owner of Russian religious properties in East Jerusalem and the West Bank – including the Nevsky property. Israel, however, gave control of the sites to the Red Church.
Even after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 and following reconciliation efforts between the two branches, the Imperial Orthodox Society that controls the Nevsky church continues to insist on its legal ownership and independent control of the Holy Land sites it held prior to 1967.
The Orthodox Society has fought in court for the past two years to prevent the church’s return to Moscow. It scored an important victory in March, a month after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began, when Jerusalem District Court halted the registration process, saying it needed to be a political decision approved by the full Israeli cabinet.
Given the upheaval in the Israeli government, and the sanctions taken against Russia around the world, that decision was understandably impossible to implement at the time.
Putin has become visibly impatient. In April, it was revealed that he sent a letter to then-Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, asking that he take that political step and transfer control of the church to the Russian Federation.
Power and pride
But could the church really be playing a central role in the upheaval around the Jewish Agency?
Former lawmaker Ksenia Svetlova, director of the Israel-Middle East program at Mitvim – the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, and a policy fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy at Reichman University, doesn’t rule out the possibility. She says that regaining the church has become a point of both power and pride for Putin, at a time where he is fighting for both.
“As he sees it, Netanyahu promised him that the church would return to Russia. And Putin thinks like a Mafia boss: promises must be kept. It doesn’t matter which Israeli leader gave it and who is in charge now. Authoritarian leaders don’t understand these things, and they don’t recognize legal complications. For them, a promise is a promise.”
Despite the fact that Putin is in no way a religious man, she explains, he has long embraced the Russian Orthodox Church as a lever for increasing his power and control, both domestically and overseas.
In the Middle East, and particularly in Jerusalem, she says, it is part of his larger vision and ambition, given that he views himself as a modern-day Peter the Great.
“It’s not just about returning to the former glory of the USSR, but also the Russian imperialistic model for which Jerusalem was very central,” she explains. “Just like the Saudis are viewed as the protectors of the Muslim holy places in Mecca and Medina, he wants the Russians to be seen as protectors of Christiandom in Jerusalem,” she says.
Svetlova recalls that when Russia made its first military intervention into Syria in 2015, it repeatedly cited the need to protect local Christians and churches from assaults by Islamists, “justifying their presence in the Middle East with a religious motive.”
Now, she believes it is possible that in his quest for the Nevsky property to be returned to Russian hands, the fate of Jewish Agency activity in Russia is being held hostage the same way Issachar was two years ago.
“Putin has said he will do everything necessary in order to get it back,” she says. “‘Everything’ certainly could include closing the Jewish Agency. There are many reasons this may be happening now, but this very well might be one of them.”
What will the Ukrainian nuns who pray around the clock do if Putin becomes their new landlord? If you ask, the reply is a beatific smile, a shrug and a gesture to the altar under the portrait of Jesus: “We don’t know. It’s all in God’s hands.”