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Orthodox Church sells its land cheap to settlers

This posting has these items:
1) TOI: Greek Orthodox Arabs call for patriarch’s ouster over land deals, Palestinians revolt over their Patriarch’s deals;;
2) TOI: Selling holy land: Inside the Greek Patriarchate’s Jerusalem property deals, Sue Surkes provides the most comprehensive account;
3) Revolvy: Patriarch Irenaios, the Patriarch who was dismissed for his property deals;
4) Haaretz: Greek Orthodox Church Quietly Selling Off Israeli Assets at Fire Sale Prices, a this point (October 14) Nir Hasson knows only how secretive the property buying and selling is;


The Imperial Hotel at the Jaffa Gate, the lease to which was sold to the right-wing Ateret Cohanim organization and is the subject of an appeal by the Greek Orthodox Patriarch. Photo by Shmuel Bar-Am.  See second item

Greek Orthodox Arabs call for patriarch’s ouster over land deals

Scuffle breaks out between cleric’s supporters and some 50 church members opposed to real estate deals struck with Jews

By AP and TOI STAFF
November 16, 2017

Dozens of Christian Arabs protested against the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of the Holy Land on Thursday, demanding the resignation of Patriarch Theophilus III for selling church land to Israelis.

Some 50 demonstrators rallied outside the Church of St. George in Lod, in central Israel, where Theophilus had arrived to pray.

Some waved banners calling him “not trustworthy.” Others scuffled with the patriarch’s supporters.

The church is one of the largest real estate owners in the Holy Land. It is dominated by Greek clergy while the flock is overwhelmingly Palestinian.

The protest was one of several held recently in Israel and the West Bank that have called for the ouster of the patriarch and the replacement of Greek clergy with Palestinian ones.


Palestinian Christians demand the removal of their patriarch Theophilus lll, for selling church land to Israeli Jews, during the patriarch’s visit to the central city of Lod, November 16, 2017. The main banner says, “Not worthy.” (Courtesy)

Activists are furious over a list of real estate sales conducted by the patriarchate with private companies registered in offshore companies whose investors are unknown.

Demonstrator Ghassan Mounayer accused the church of giving land to “Jewish businessmen instead of investing it in the well-being of the Christian community.”

Particularly sensitive is a deal made under Theophilus’ since-deposed predecessor to lease prominent properties in the Old City — part of East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians want as the future capital of a Palestinian state — to front companies for an organization dedicated to settling Jews in non-Jewish areas [viz. Ateret Cohanim].

That deal has been upheld by two Israeli courts and is currently being challenged as fraudulent by the patriarch in the Supreme Court.



The Greek Orthodox monastery Mar Elias. The church owes NIS 160 million on, amongst other things, the land around this monastery.

Selling holy land: Inside the Greek Patriarchate’s Jerusalem property deals

As embattled patriarch seeks overseas support for multi-million-dollar deals that are sparking Israeli and Palestinian controversy, here are the sales and the buyers

By Sue Surkes, Times of Israel
November 22, 2017

Grappling with tens of millions of dollars of debt, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Jerusalem has managed to balance its books by selling and leasing plots to a number of overseas companies all headed by Jewish investors, senior figures in the Greek Orthodox Church have told The Times of Israel.

The highly controversial deals — which have attracted opposition both in Israel and among the Palestinians, caused immense anxiety among leaseholders to the land that has been transferred to mysterious new owners, and prompted a Knesset move toward government intervention — have enabled the Patriarchate to extricate itself from its financial crisis and it does not plan to market any further tracts of land in the near future.

Church sources have denied that the plots and properties have been sold at unrealistically low prices or that there was anything untoward about the sales and have explained in detail to The Times of Israel the basis for those deals.

The key shareholder behind many of the companies buying up the plots or leases to them is David Sofer, a Jewish Israeli businessman living in London. Sofer is the main partner in Kronty Investments Ltd, which has bought whole swaths of real estate, mainly in Jerusalem, The Times of Israel has established.


David Sofer (C) pictured with wife Cindy (L) at the opening reception of the Jewish Museum in London on March 16, 2010. Photo by Desmond O’Neill Features Ltd

Together with the New York-based American billionaire Michael Steinhardt, he also owns former church land under the company name Oranim Ltd.

As SMS Ltd, he and Steinhardt have also obtained leases to church land at the capital’s First Station complex, The Times of Israel can reveal.

And as Abu Tor Properties Ltd, the duo hold the lease to an undeveloped hilltop in the neighbourhood of Abu Tor.


What better to do with a hilltop like the Hill of Evil Counsel AKA Abu Tor [above] than build on it?

The identification of the new ownership should bring some relief to Israelis, many of whom were worried that enemy elements, such as Iranians or Qataris, have been involved in the church’s quiet sale of land to anonymous companies registered in various offshore tax havens. Considerable uncertainty still remains, however, concerning the long-term future of some of the plots and properties involved.


American billionaire Michael Steinhardt, R, with Shmuley Boteach, the popular American TV Orthodox rabbi and father of nine children.

Under Israeli law, overseas companies wishing to buy real estate in Israel do not have to reveal their investors’ identities in order to be registered with the Israel Lands Registry.

The debts and the deals

Of all the sales, the most controversial for Israeli Jews concern land in Jerusalem on which residential buildings already stand — in the neighbourhoods of Givat Oranim (now owned by Oranim Ltd.), Abu Tor (Kronty Investments Ltd.), and in Talbieh, Rehavia and Nayot (now owned by a company called Nayot Komemiyut Investments, in which Sofer and Steinhardt are not involved).

In these areas, some 1,500 homeowners lease the land on which their houses and apartments have been built. Plunged into uncertainty, they did not know who their new landowners were, whether they will renew the leases, and if so, for how much. With all the uncertainty, the values of their properties have plummeted.

Pressure from homeowners has prompted a flurry of activity in the Knesset, where one lawmaker, Rachel Azaria (Kulanu) is pushing a private member’s bill that would have the state confiscate the lands sold in return for compensation, while the justice minister has appointed a committee under the deputy attorney general to look into ways of protecting affected residents.

The church sources confirmed that both Sofer and Steinhardt have been close to Theophilus III since the latter was elected to be patriarch in 2005, and were instrumental in helping him to pay off inherited patriarchate debts that amounted to around NIS 160 million [£34.3 million] at a time when the Israeli government was still withholding recognition of his appointment. It recognized him only in 2007.

While the Patriarchate is the second-biggest real estate owner in Israel and holds an estimated 20 percent of the land in Jerusalem’s Old City, it has little cash income but must find $600,00-700,000 a month to pay for salaries, educational institutions and the upkeep of its many churches and monasteries in Israel, Jordan and the areas administered by the Palestinian Authority.

Unlike other Greek Orthodox patriarchates, it is independent from Greece and receives no financial support from the Greek — or any other — government.

Diplomatically, it also feels at a disadvantage to, say, the Catholic Church which has the Vatican state behind it.

The Patriarchate’s financial situation has gradually worsened over the decades since Israeli independence as its congregants — feeling sandwiched between the country’s Jews and Muslims — have emigrated overseas. Numbers have dwindled to the extent that out of around 10,000 Christians still living in Jerusalem, only 3,000 belong to the Greek Orthodox Church.

According to sources who spoke to The Times of Israel, the Patriarchate has funded its activities by buying and selling its one and only resource — investment properties — for centuries, either through leases, which have been the dominant instrument in Israel since the 1950s, or through outright sales.

Around NIS 100 million ($28.4) of the debt that Theophilus inherited in 2005 came from unpaid property taxes, inflated by interest, on some 1,000 dunams (250 acres) of its land near the Mar Elias Greek Orthodox monastery, located in southeast Jerusalem not far from Bethlehem. A further NIS 41 million (then worth around $10 million) was owed to a developer who secured the backing of arbitrators in his claim that under a previous leadership in the 1990s, the Patriarchate breached a contract to lease for development open land on a hilltop in south Jerusalem’s Abu Tor.

Both properties — already in the hands of the Official Receiver’s office and advertised for sale at auction when Theophilus became patriarch — were important to the church for political and religious reasons; the former because of its location in East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians claim as their capital in any future peace deal with Israel, and the latter because it is traditionally regarded as the Hill of Evil Counsel, where, according to Christian tradition, the Jewish high priest Caiaphus and his associates planned how to arrest Jesus.

In return for helping to release the Abu Tor hilltop from the bailiffs’ grasp and secure the historic church and its activities on the site, Sofer was given a 99-year lease to the land where, together with Steinhardt and under the name Abu Tor Properties Ltd, he plans to build 61 luxury residential units. Jerusalem’s local planning committee is due to discuss the plans for the first time on November 29.

To free the Mar Elias lands, funds from various deals, including those made with Sofer and Steinhardt, helped to fund the NIS 11.5 million ($3.2 million) — down from the original NIS 100 million demanded — that the Israeli tax authorities agreed to accept in return for closing the case.

Between 2010 and 2015, Kronty Investments Ltd — which is registered in the British Virgin Islands and which includes another English Jewish investor, but in which Steinhardt is not involved — bought, as opposed to leased, several plots of land from the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Jerusalem.

The plots are located on Tzruya Street in Abu Tor, Gad and Lifschitz streets in the southern neighborhood of Baka, Hess Street in the city center (since sold on to the plot’s Israeli leaseholders) and the upscale King David and Ben Sira streets in downtown Jerusalem.

The company is either in the midst of developing, or requesting building permits to develop, residential complexes in some of the neighbourhoods and hotel and commercial space in the city centre.

In 2012, Kronty also bought 27 dunams (6.7 acres) of Greek church land in the capital’s Givat Oranim neighborhood, selling this on to Oranim Ltd, which was registered in the Isle of Man last year.

The Givat Oranim deal comprises plots on Shai Agnon, Hama’apilim, Hashayarot and Mevo Haoleh streets, as well as a stretch of open land in the San Simon Park that includes the lease to a complex that once housed people with disabilities.

Elsewhere in Israel, Kronty Investments Ltd. owns land on the Habonim beach in Tiberias.

Sofer and Steinhardt also negotiated with the Patriarchate on behalf of a group of investors to buy 570 dunams (140 acres) of land in the prime Jerusalem neighbourhoods of Talbieh, Rehavia and Nayot.


View of Nayot, one of Jerusalem’s prime neighborhoods, on January 10, 2015, after a snowy day. Photo by Hadas Parush/Flash90

That deal was not concluded because of various complications and another company, Nayot Komemiyut Investments, stepped in and bought it instead. Nayot Komemiyut Investments is led by Jerusalemite Noam Ben David, along with an American investor now living in Israel, Moshe Greenberg, and an Australian one, Hersch Cooper. The deal is currently stuck in two complicated court cases.

Arab opposition

As well as creating uncertainty among Israeli Jews, the sales have become a political football for several Arab groups, each of which appears to have a different agenda.

For the church’s Arab opponents, the most problematic of the sales is one that Theophilus is fighting in the courts, arguing that it was concluded fraudulently.

In that deal, an employee of the church signed a contract to sell the leases to two hotels and a third property to three shell companies, behind which stood the right-wing Jewish organization, Ateret Cohanim.

The hotels are prominently located between Jaffa Gate and the entrance to the Old City market, in the most visible part of the Christian Quarter, in East Jerusalem.

Ateret Cohanim is a controversial organization committed to settling Jews throughout the Old City.

One group, the Central Orthodox Council, which furthers an Arab nationalist agenda within the Greek Orthodox Church, has seized not only on the Jaffa Gate hotels deal but on all the sales, throughout Israel, claiming that their church has sold off the family silver to Jews and alleging that the patriarch is corrupt.

The council, which has 200 to 300 activists, has held protests in Jerusalem, Bethlehem and the coastal city of Lod over recent months calling for Theophilus to be ousted and for all Greek nationals in senior church positions to be replaced by Palestinians.

The Arab nationalists have recently been joined by several Palestinian Authority figures in a move that the church insiders see as an attempt to advance personal political agendas.

In recent weeks, possibly against the backdrop of rumored Knesset elections next year, Israeli Arab politicians have also joined the fray, among them Ayman Odeh, leader of the Joint (Arab) List, fellow party member Aida Touma-Suleiman and former MK Mohammad Barakeh, who now heads the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee, an umbrella body for Israeli-Arab organizations.

According to the Maariv newspaper, Barakeh told a protest gathering earlier this month that the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate’s properties belonged to the Palestinian people just as much as the properties of the Islamic Wakf did.

Seeking support overseas

The patriarch is troubled most by Azaria’s bill, which he sees as endangering the church’s right to deal freely with its own lands, and the Jaffa Gate deal, which was so controversial when it first came to light that it led to the sacking of Theophilus’s predecessor.

It is these two cases that have prompted Theophilus to embark on an unprecedented international tour to garner support, with the backing of all the Holy Land’s churches.

So far, he has visited the king of Jordan, the pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and senior political figures in Greece and Cyprus. At the beginning of December, he will visit Russia.


The head of the Orthodox Church in the Holy Land, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III, leads the Easter Sunday mass at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem’s old city on April 4, 2010. Thousands of Christian pilgrims streamed into Jerusalem’s cavernous Church of the Holy Sepulchre to celebrate Easter Sunday at the traditional site of Jesus’s crucifixion and burial. Photo by Gali Tibbon/AFP /Getty Images

The church sources stressed that the Patriarchate chose to sell land in order to balance the books and that it selected only tracts which do not have religious significance and which it did not expect Israel to ever return.

Lease agreements were a “respectable instrument for land confiscations,” they told The Times of Israel, adding that the Israeli state had ensured that the church would not be able to build on any undeveloped lands that it owned by zoning them as open land or land earmarked for agriculture or industry.

The sources also challenged claims by the Central Orthodox Council and sectors of the Israeli media that the lands were sold off at rock-bottom prices, saying that the value of large swaths had been brought down by the existence of leases which still had many years to run.

In Caesarea, for example, the patriarchate sold around 430 dunams (108 acres) to a company called St Ventures for just $1.5 million because a 135-year lease to the State of Israel, signed in 1974, still had 92 years to run and was renewable for a further 100 years. Furthermore, part of the land falls within a national park and the rest is designated for agricultural use only.

The lease on six dunams (1.5 acres) of commercial land sold in Jaffa to the Bona Trading company for $2 million still has 90 years to go. In Givat Oranim, where leases on some 240 apartments, as well as a large shopping centre, still have 52 years to run, the land was sold for $5 million. All the prices include property taxes as well.

The sources denied that the real estate companies had opted for offshore tax havens to dodge taxes, saying all taxes were and have to be paid in Israel before landowners can register their new property rights.


Patriarch Irenaios

Posted by Revolvy from information in Wikipedia, ND

Irenaios Skopelitis (born 17 April 1939) was the 140th Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem from 2000 to 2005, though his dismissal was disputed. As Patriarch, he was styled Patriarch Irenaios or Irenaios I.

Irenaios was appointed locum tenens in 2000 and elected patriarch on 13 August 2001 in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

He was enthroned on 15 September 2001 as “Patriarch of the Holy City of Jerusalem and all Palestine, Syria, beyond the Jordan River, Cana of Galilee and Holy Zion” in the presence of senior church and secular dignitaries, including Archbishop Christodoulos of the Church of Greece and Metropolitan Nicholas of the Czech and Slovak Orthodox Church.

Biography

Irenaios was born on the island of Samos, Greece as Emmanouil Skopelitis, in April 1939, and came to Jerusalem in 1953.

A few years into Irenaios’ patriarchate, he was accused of selling several parcels of church-owned land in the Old City of Jerusalem to Israeli developers.

As most of the Orthodox Christians in the area are Palestinian, and the land was in an Arab-populated area that most Palestinians hoped would become as a part of a future Palestinian capital, these accusations caused a great deal of concern among Church members. On March 19, 2005, the Palestinian Authority formed a commission to investigate these allegations.

After a thorough investigation by the commission, the commission exonerated Patriarch Ireneos and concluded that the accusations made against him were “A very well calculated plan … schemed by a number of clerics opposing Ireneos in collaboration with Israeli Extreme Right Wingers. Their interest converged in the aim of getting rid of Ireneos step by step.” The report also concluded that “In accordance with the applicable law in East Jerusalem, Patriarch Ireneos is still the legitimate Patriarch enjoying full powers.”

Some Orthodox Church leaders in Jerusalem announced on May 5, 2005 in a letter that they had broken off contact (some called it boycotting) with Patriarch Irenaios, and regarded him as dismissed as Patriarch of Jerusalem.

The decision reached by the Holy Synod of Jerusalem of the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulchre was made final on May 6, 2005 by a two-thirds vote of that body. As far as the Church leaders were concerned, Irenaios ceased to be Patriarch from that point. On 24 May 2005 a special pan-Orthodox Conference was convened in Constantinople (Istanbul) to review the decisions of the Holy Synod of Jerusalem. The pan-Orthodox Conference under the presidency of the Ecumenical Patriarch voted overwhelmingly to confirm the decision of the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulchre and to strike Irenaios’ name from the diptychs. ..

The Holy Synod of Jerusalem went further. On June 16, 2005 it announced that Irenaios had been demoted to the rank of monk. This action is now widely viewed as being uncanonical. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has also said the defrocking does not have any validity, and is not recognized by any Orthodox Church. Since then Irenaios has not left his apartment and is de facto imprisoned there.

Theophilos III was elected as the new Patriarch on 22 August 2005 by the Synod. The election was confirmed by the pan-Orthodox Synod of Istanbul (Constantinople) and he was enthroned on 22 November 2005.

By a longstanding tradition, the dismissal of a Patriarch of Jerusalem and the election of a replacement requires the approval or recognition of the governments in the regions of the Patriarchate’s authority – presently, Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Jordan. Jordan had recognized the dismissal by June 2005. Ireneos continued to be recognized by Israel as the Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem until December 2007, and Israel continued to invite him to official government functions.

As of 20 December 2007, the governments of Jordan and the Palestinian Authority and Israel all now recognise Theophilos III as Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem.


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

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

By Nir Hasson, Haaretz news
October 14, 2017

An anonymous company registered in a tax shelter paid $3.3 million for 240 apartments, a commercial centre and open areas in the centre 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 amphitheatre, 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 centre 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 neighbourhoods 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 neighbourhoods, 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.

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