Secretive real estate deals in the Holy Land are putting one of Jerusalem’s most powerful and ancient churches in the spotlight.
The Greek Orthodox Church calls itself the second largest landowner in Israel, after the Israeli government. It says it owns some 30 percent of Jerusalem’s walled Old City, the city’s historic core, and controls the largest stake of any Christian denomination in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, home to the traditional tomb of Jesus. It also owns lands throughout Jerusalem, Israel and the West Bank.
But in recent years, church leaders have quietly sold off several properties to anonymous investors fronted by companies registered in far-flung tax havens. Israeli and Jewish businessmen were later named as some of the buyers.
These deals have only recently become public, raising panic among Israelis whose apartments are built on church land, and leading to small but growing public protests by some Palestinian church members.
The church leadership is dominated by Greek nationals, but the church’s local following is largely Palestinian. Some Palestinians are worried about possible implications for their quest for independence.
“We are concerned because these are the properties of the church. And these properties are diminishing year after year,” said Hanna Amireh, a Palestinian official in charge of church affairs. “This is part of our land, in a way or another. We don’t want this land to be sold …to our enemy.”
The question of land ownership strikes at the core of the Israeli-Palestinian tug-of-war over Jerusalem. Israel…