Greek Orthodox Church Sells Land In Israel, Worrying Both Israelis And Palestinians : Parallels Greek Orthodox Church leaders have quietly sold off several properties and leases to Israeli, Jewish and anonymous investors fronted by companies registered in far-flung tax havens.
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Greek Orthodox Church Sells Land In Israel, Worrying Both Israelis And Palestinians

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Greek Orthodox Church Sells Land In Israel, Worrying Both Israelis And Palestinians

Greek Orthodox Church Sells Land In Israel, Worrying Both Israelis And Palestinians

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Some Israelis and Palestinians find themselves united against a common foe, the Greek Orthodox Church. It's one of the most powerful and ancient churches in Jerusalem and one of the biggest property owners, too. In recent years, Greek Orthodox Church officials have quietly sold off properties to private investors. And that's upset people on both sides of the city's divide, as NPR's Daniel Estrin reports from Jerusalem.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Many churches - the Russian Orthodox, the Vatican, the Armenians - have staked out land in Jerusalem for ages. This latest controversy dates back to 2005, when Palestinian hotel manager Abu Walid Dajani woke up to a phone call by a reporter.

ABU WALID DAJANI: And they told me, your hotel has been sold. So I said, what are you talking about?

ESTRIN: He was the manager. But the hotel was owned by the Greek Orthodox Church. A local newspaper had reported the church secretly sold the hotel to an Israeli settler group seeking to expand Israeli control in the contested city. In Jerusalem, the Greek Orthodox Church leaders are Greek, but the local congregants are Palestinian. And they protested the sale. The head of the local church, the patriarch, was ousted. But now the new patriarch is under fire.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in Arabic).

ESTRIN: Palestinians yelled traitor and threw eggs at his motorcade as he entered Bethlehem this Christmas. The church has recently admitted to selling prime real estate in Jerusalem and Israel to anonymous investors. It says some of the buyers are Israelis and Jews. Palestinian officials like Hanna Amireh have denounced the sales.

HANNA AMIREH: I'm concerned because these are the property of the church. And this property diminishing year after year. We don't want this land to be sold to - let's say, to our enemy.

ESTRIN: Israelis are concerned, too.

NAVA BAT ZUR: I feel myself that I was betrayed by the church.

ESTRIN: Nava Bat Zur's apartment sits on church land. And the church sold it out from under her.

BAT ZUR: I'm living here. Why shouldn't they give me the right of the first refusal?

ESTRIN: She says her property value dropped drastically because of the uncertainty about the new landowners. Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos has gone on the defensive in this video message in November.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

THEOPHILOS III: Every day, we face false accusations, suspicion and slander. Enough is enough.

ESTRIN: The patriarch has traveled to meet the pope, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Prince Charles in the U.K. and other leaders to seek their support. Church officials defend their property sales and say they use the money for schools and other church services that serve the local community. Church land has made people nervous for a long time here.

ISRAEL KIMHI: It is sensitive to see the amount of land which is owned by others.

ESTRIN: Former city planner Israel Kimhi he says he drew up a map of church lands in the '70s. But the Israeli government wouldn't let him release it then. Now the recent sales have stirred up the issue.

KIMHI: And after so many years, they do not sell the land. Suddenly, they sold the land. So this is the big change.

ESTRIN: And some people are worried other churches that own land in Jerusalem could be tempted to sell off property in majority-Palestinian areas to Israelis or maybe the other way around, fueling the Israeli-Palestinian tug of war over the Holy Land. Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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