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Report: In angry letter to Bennett, Putin demands ownership of a Jerusalem church

Russia claims that Israel halted a guaranteed transfer of ownership over the Alexander Nevsky Church once the war in Ukraine began

People walk outside the Alexander Nevsky Church in Jerusalem's Old City, Jan. 20, 2020. (Photo: Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Russian President Vladimir Putin sent an angry letter to Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett late on Sunday, according to a report in the Hebrew-language outlet Ynet. 

In it, Putin demanded that the ownership rights of the Alexander Nevsky Church in Jerusalem would be immediately handed over to Russia, in accordance with a promise made by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In 2019, Netanyahu vowed to transfer the compound in return for the release of an Israeli citizen, Naama Issachar, from a Moscow prison. Issachar was accused of smuggling 10 grams of marijuana and was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison. Russia requested that Israel would transfer the ownership of the church since 2017 and used Issachar’s release as a bargaining chip, the report said.

In early March, a Jerusalem District Court canceled the Russian government’s ownership rights of the church. The judge ruled that only the government is eligible to make a decision regarding the property, due to political and religious considerations and given Netanyahu’s designation of the compound as a “holy site.” That means that the decision now lies in the hands of Bennett’s government.

The report mentioned that the letter is an unusual step for Putin. The letter emphasized the importance that Moscow places on the matter. Officials in Jerusalem are worried that the dispute could exacerbate tensions and ignite a diplomatic crisis with Russia, especially during an already-fraught time over its invasion of Ukraine. 

Ynet said the letter was released by Sergei Stepashin, a former Russian prime minister who is chairman of the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society, which oversees Russian properties in the region. 

Stepashin said that Russia has provided all of the necessary paperwork to prove its rightful ownership of the holy compound, but that once the invasion of Ukraine began Israeli authorities stalled the registration process for the property. 

"Now we are fighting for the return of the Compound, and it is very difficult: we were almost there, we worked for five years, we found all the historical documents, but the situation with Ukraine occurred, and Israel behaved as it often does – playing with both sides, playing ping pong with everyone,” the Russian diplomat told Ynet.

The Alexander’s Courtyard Church, also known as the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, is located near the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the heart of the Christian Quarter of the Old City. It has been a disputed property for many years. 

Prior to Netanyahu’s gesture to Russia, the church was owned by the Orthodox Palestine Society of the Holy Land (OPS), which opposed the transfer of the property to Russian hands. The OPS claimed that it had been the sole owner of the compound for more than 130 years and that neither the State of Israel nor Russia had the right to confiscate the property.

Except for Putin’s letter to Bennett, Russia has been trying to exert pressure on Israel in other ways. Authorities in Russia announced this week that they will not permit Israeli Foreign Ministry officials to visit Revaz Raphael Shmertz, an Israeli citizen who has been in prison for 10 months on charges of real estate fraud. Shmertz maintains his innocence.

The Jerusalem Post reported that Russia did not even officially inform Israel that one of its citizens is being held in their custody. This raises the question of whether Moscow plans to use Shmertz as a negotiating card, the report said. 

Tal Heinrich is a senior correspondent for both ALL ISRAEL NEWS and ALL ARAB NEWS. She is currently based in New York City. Tal also provides reports and analysis for Israeli Hebrew media Channel 14 News.

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