Russian Property Article in Jerusalem Post
- From the Jerusalem Post….
GIL ZOHAR, THE JERUSALEM POST Oct. 26, 2006
Jerusalem's plethora of churches, monasteries, convents and pilgrim hospices help define the Holy City's character. In more ways than one.
There's a whole other level to the metropolis's ecclesiastical properties. Many of these lands were leased to private individuals and public institutions for up to 99 years, and some of these leases are coming due now.
No hypothetical issue, these sites - mostly leased by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate and Russian Orthodox Church - include the very land on which the Knesset and Jerusalem Magistrate's Court, among other prominent buildings, stand.
In an ominous precedent, the Carmelite Church, associated with the Vatican, recently declined to renew its lease, due to expire in June 2007, with the venerable Ulpan Etzion in Baka. The church's somewhat rundown building, which had served as the ulpan's main dormitory and dining room since it was founded in 1949, will be demolished to make way for luxury housing. (See box)
Although Jerusalem is the Holy City, Jerusalem's situation is not unique. To put these church leases in perspective, in this reporter's Old Country of Canada, the province of Ontario's Ministry of Natural Resources has decided not to renew the hundreds of leases on often expensive cottages built in the middle of the last century on crown-owned land in the wilderness of Algonquin Provincial Park.
As those contracts expire, the lessees may cart away the private houses they built or leave them to be razed a la Gush Katif.
By 2016 no summer homes will remain. Their ruins will be allowed to be covered by the primeval forest.
Could the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, which has had a long-standing feud with the government of Israel over what it views as interference in the appointment and removal of its patriarch, decline to renew its leases and insist that all buildings built on its real estate be removed or forfeited?
In fact, it could.
A precedent may be gleaned by the actions of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his Russian counterpart President Vladimir Putin, who met in Moscow for a three-day visit ending October 19.
As if the two leaders didn't have enough crises to deal with, such as the nuclear threat in Iran and North Korea or Russia's arms deals with Syria and by extension Hizbullah, they also discussed the real estate squabble. Channel 2 recently reported that for the past few months Russian diplomats have been obsessively demanding that the Israeli government transfer to the Kremlin proprietary rights and control over the Russian Compound, that cluster of historic buildings in central Jerusalem that had been built during the the final decades of the Czarist reign and which have served as the police headquarters, government offices, museum commemorating the pre-state undergrounds and courthouse since the British Mandate.
Miri Eisen, Olmert's newly appointed foreign media advisor, says that Olmert joked about the issue in a meeting with editors of the Russian media. "All of the properties will stay in Jerusalem," the prime minister reportedly quipped.
But it's no laughing matter.
The Russians are adamant about regaining the Sergei Building and Duhovnia Russian Mission Building. The former houses the Ministry of Agriculture, the Nature and Parks Authority and the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel; the latter is occupied by the Jerusalem Magistrate's Court and was home to Israel's Supreme Court until it relocated to its permanent home in the Government Precinct in 1992.
For Moscow, the regaining of the buildings - which proudly bear the emblem of the Imperial Russian Orthodox Palestine Society in the old Cyrillic alphabet used before Josef Stalin's orthographic reforms - symbolizes the restoration of Russia's national prestige.
The saga begins with the Crimean War of 1854-1856, which erupted when France's Napoleon III had his ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Marquis de Lavalette, compel the Sublime Porte to recognize France as the "sovereign authority" in the Holy Land.
The Russians quickly made counter-claims to the change in the status quo. Pointing to two treaties signed in 1757 and 1774, Sultan Abd ul-Mejid I reversed his earlier decision, renouncing the French treaty and insisting that Russia was the protector of Christianity in the Ottoman Empire.
The Crimean War, which together with the American Civil War of 1861-1865 marked the beginning of modern, mechanized slaughter on the battlefield, led to further Ottoman territorial losses and capitulations to the European powers.
Among those was the granting in 1860 of 68 dunams outside the ramparts of Jerusalem's Old City, a once-walled site known as the Russian Compound.
A series of 19th-century structures grew up around imposing Russian Orthodox Holy Trinity Cathedral, built by Prince Nikolai in 1872. Together they constituted the world's largest "hotel," which could accommodate as many as 10,000 Russian pilgrims at one time.
Russia abolished serfdom in 1861 and from them until the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Russian peasants composed the largest block of pilgrims in the Holy Land.
But not all the pilgrims were dirt poor. The aristocracy also came to pray at the sites associated with Jesus. The Sergei Building was built in 1890 by Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich as a luxurious abode for those princes of Moscovy, while more plebian buildings housed the masses.
Sergei was assassinated in 1905. His widow Grand Duchess Elizabeth Fyodorovna then became a nun and gave away all her royal possessions. Murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918, her remains were brought to Jerusalem's Church of Mary Magdalene, which was built by Czar Alexander III in 1886. Her canonization by the Russian Orthodox Church in 2001, together with the campaign to regain the Russian Compound, is indicative of Moscow's desire to reclaim its lost Romanov history.
All this activity came to an abrupt end in the wake of the outbreak of World War I that ultimately led to the Russian Revolution of 1917. The flood of pilgrims ceased. The Russian Orthodox Church split in two: the "Red Church," which continued to operate in Russia under the aegis of the communist regime, and the "White Church," of the Russian migr s in the West, who established their own religious institutions outside of Russia. The schism continues to reverberate like some relic of the Cold War.
Meanwhile some of the Russian Church in Palestine's large property holdings, including the all but empty Russian Compound, were seized by the British Mandate authorities, who recognized the White Church as the owner of Russia's assets in the Holy Land.
Towards the end of the Mandate, the British fortified the Russian Compound and other government offices. The barb-wire ringed area was dubbed "Bevingrad," a nickname that twinned Britain's hated Colonial Secretary Ernest Bevin with the Soviet Union's pivotal World War II victory at Stalingrad.
Another turning point occurred in 1948. Assuming the protected tenant status held by the British Mandate offices, the nascent State of Israel - which was assisted in its birth by the Soviet Union - decided to reverse British Mandate policy vis- -vis the Russian ecclesiastical properties.
The Israeli authorities expelled the officials of the White Church and announced that henceforth, ownership of the assets in Israeli territory was in the hands of the Moscow-based Red Church.
But the Russian Compound, the largest and most important of these properties, remained in the service of state institutions.
The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, in contrast, continued to recognize the White Church and its ownership of the important assets of the church in East Jerusalem.
Further compounding the muddled ownership, in 1964 the State of Israel purchased from the Red Church most of the Russian Compound's land and structures, including the police station and lock-up in what became known as the "Orange Deal," according to which the Soviet Union was paid with Israeli citrus fruit.
The name contains a historical allusion; on April 21, 1947, Lehi comrades-in-arms of Moshe Barazani and Meir Feinstein smuggled hand grenades hidden in oranges to the prisoners awaiting execution in the Jerusalem Central Prison for terrorism. A half an hour before the hanging was to take place, two explosions were heard from their death row cell. Barazani and Feinstein escaped the British noose.
While the Russian Compound's infrequently visited Hall of Heroism museum is slated for preservation, the ramshackle police station will be razed. In September, as part of the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design's centenary celebrations, the school announced an international architectural competition for the design of its new $60-million, 9,000-sq. m. downtown campus that will replace its current quarters on Mount Scopus.
Yet another turning point occurred in 1967, when the Israel Defense Force conquered the West Bank and Israel annexed east Jerusalem. Israel did not change the status of the White Russian Church as the owner of the assets in the occupied territories, with the result that the government found itself recognizing both rival Russian churches, the Red and the White.
The creation of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, in 1994, changed the situation again, at a time when the Soviet Union had collapsed, and so, at least ostensibly, there was no longer any place for the two Russian churches.
It is against this background that Russia is seeking the return of its historic property in downtown Jerusalem.
A joint committee of Russian and Israeli officials, including representatives of Israel's Foreign Ministry, Justice Ministry and the Israel Lands Administration, is currently seeking a solution, says Eisen. "It's being done with good will on both sides," she maintains.
Such is Russia's determination to regain its property and restore it for pilgrimage use that Russia is prepared to build a new courthouse to replace the existing Jerusalem Magistrate's Court, Eisen explains.
So by 2012 or thereabouts, pilgrims with their heads covered by babushkas and art students wearing mini-skirts and jeans will have displaced the Russian Compound's current population of criminals, police, lawyers, judges and bureaucrats.
Even more problematic than the Russian ecclesiastical properties is the issue of the Greek Orthodox lands across the city.
Drawing on recently declassified documents, Uri Bialer, professor of international relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, published Cross on the Star of David: Israel's Foreign Policy 1948-1967 (Indiana University Press, 2005). This archival research was abbreviated in the article "Horse Trading: Israel and the Greek Orthodox Ecclesiastical Property, 1948-1952" published in the September 2005 issue of The Journal of Israeli History.
In his research, Bialer documents how the Patriarchate became almost bankrupt due to the disruption in pilgrimages and global changes mentioned above. As a result, he writes, in the early 1920s the British Mandate authorities compelled the Church to sell part of its extensive assets in order to cover its debts. The pre-state Yishuv was able to seize on this sacrifice sale to snap up 122 dunams that were developed as the posh neighborhood of Rehavia, 67 dunams on Rehov Ben-Yehuda and Mamilla, which had served as Jerusalem's commercial center until 1948, and 147 dunams in Talpiot.
The land sales drew the ire of the Catholic Church, which wasn't suffering from a cash-flow crisis.
Those 1920s transactions set a precedent for the difficult negotiations 30 years later between the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate and newly-established State of Israel. Squeezed in the middle of the war between Jews and Arabs in Palestine, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate again found itself in a severe financial crisis. Moreover many of its Greek congregants had fled the Middle East, returning to Greece and Cyprus, or moving on to a Diaspora in Europe, Australia, the United States, Canada and elsewhere.
Compelled to pay tax arrears of 140,000 Israeli liras, the Patriarchate finally agreed to lease Israel 104 dunams for 99 years. The agreement, signed on November 6, 1951, includes the area between the YMCA and King George George Avenue, Talbiyeh and the Rose Garden.
Nine months later, a second agreement was hammered out whereby the Patriarchate leased out a further 405 dunams, again for a period just shy of a century. It is this parcel that includes the land upon which the Knesset was subsequently built in 1966.
These negotiations were concluded at "much less than their market value," Bialer shows, and took place against the background of the property seizures by the General Custodian of ostensibly-abandoned Arab property. With the Patriarchate cut off in Jordan, the threat of seizure was very real.
Indeed Israeli policymakers "succeeded in taking over Lutheran property, and, in effect, eradicating the Lutheran presence in Israel," Bialer writes.
What then will happen when the Greek Orthodox leases mature in 2050 and 2051?
No church officials from any of the relevant churches agreed to speak with In Jerusalem for the preparation of this report.
Nor were any of the authorities contacted by In Jerusalem able to provide an exact accounting of which properties are owned by which church. But Rabbi David Rosen, an ecumenical expert with the American Jewish Committee's Jerusalem bureau, notes that the ecclesiastical leases fall into two categories. The Greek Orthodox lease holds on streets such Dan, Reuven and Yehuda in Baka are pro forma, with symbolic rents only. "De facto, they're seen as sold in perpetuity," he explains. When the leases expire, he suggests, they'll likely be renewed for a further 99 years, again with a symbolic rent.
But what if that is not the case, especially with regard to key governmental buildings such as the Knesset or the Villa Aghion, which, since 1974, has served as the prime minister's official residence.
Then Israel would nationalize the land, Rabbi Rosen states matter-of-factly.
The second category of ecclesiastical leases, he notes, are those buildings leased at commercial rather symbolic rents. For example, after 1948 when the Hebrew University's campus on Mount Scopus was cut off by Jordan, the university leased the Terra Sancta and Notre Dame buildings from the Franciscans and the Assumptionist Fathers respectively, until its new campus could be constructed at Givat Ram. Hebrew University has long since relinquished both buildings to the Catholic Church.
The reality of the church leases is more layered and based on pragmatic considerations, insists Daniel Rossing, the director of the Jerusalem Center for Jewish Christian Relations, and the former head (1975-1988) of the Department for Christian Communities in Israel's now defunct Ministry of Religion.
It's "alarmist" and "highly unlikely" to suggest that negotiations over lease renewals will break down resulting in expropriation or nationalization. The future negotiations will have "no vast impact on life in Jerusalem," Rossing predicts.
"Common sense and the lawyers on all sides will prevail. And the lawyers will make a lot of money," he quips.
The church leases of buildings have historically proven to be a "good source of income," he explains. And not one of the churches would wish to jeopardize this by increasing rents so steeply as to drive away their long-term tenants.
One can divine the future from the past, he suggests. "Did anything drastic happen in these long, negotiated deals? It's highly unlike that other than in specific buildings - such as Ulpan Etzion - that the churches will want their buildings back."
Another property that is the exception that proves the rule stands at 46 Jabotinsky opposite Beit Hanassi. The building is shared by the Hebrew University and a Catholic women's order known as the Franciscans Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. The latter, which would like to regain possession of the entire building, operates the St. Anthony's student residence for Catholic students, some of whom study at Hebrew University.
The Catholics and Greeks have different interests today, explains Rossing, because of their diverging investment strategies in the 19th century undertaken with the funds that poured in from pilgrims. While the Greeks invested heavily in real estate, the Catholics preferred to build institutions such as schools, hospitals and orphanages.
"Today, in the Western world, pilgrims, like tourism, are big money," says Rossing.
While the Kremlin would like to regain its remaining properties in the Russian Compound for reasons of national prestige, Russia would also likely to get in on the lucrative trade in Orthodox visitors. "The Russian pilgrimage is big business. It's all very pragmatic. There's plenty for everybody," Rossing concludes.
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