Two Found Guilty of Forging Church Patriarch's Signature

The Jerusalem District court convicted two men yesterday of forgery and fraud in what it described as "one of the most sophisticated cases of real estate fraud in the state of Israel."

The two, Yaakov Rabinowitz and David Morgenstern, were convicted of forging the signature of the Greek Orthodox patriarch and pretending to represent his interests in a real estate leasing deal with the Jewish National Fund worth $20 million.

In April 2000, Rabinowitz and Morgenstern presented themselves to the JNF as the authorized representatives of the Greek Orthodox Church, which leases real estate on a long-term basis to the fund.

The two con-men offered the JNF to extend their lease on land in Rehavia and Talbieh, two neighborhoods in central Jerusalem, in exchange for $20 million. The two stole the money by forging the patriarch's signature and seal.

"As a result, the two suspects managed to illegally take hold of public funds especially alloted for gaining an extension on the lease over real estate strategically located in central Jerusalem," the judges wrote.

The two were also convicted of forgery in two other deals involving thousands of dunams in the area of Beit Shemesh, and five dunams near the old railway station in Jerusalem.

"The suspects cynically took advantage of the strong desire of the state authorities and the JNF to make long-term arrangements for leasing of property in Jerusalem. The concern of the authorities, which had started to take shape, was that the renewal of the lease would not take place because of the political pressure on the patriarch from various sources in the Palestinian Authority," the court wrote in its decision.