When considering purchasing a property in one of Jerusalem’s more exclusive neighborhoods, always remember: a good portion of the holy city’s real estate is owned by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate.
Besides the Patriarchate’s compound in the Old City, which includes 23 churches and monasteries, the San Simon complex in Old Katamon and the Monastery of the Cross near the Knesset, the church owns the land around the Jerusalem railway station, and large swathes of property in Talbieh and Rehavia, both neighborhoods in great demand.
The problem with the Patriarchate began back in the late 1800s when the Ottoman Empire began selling off pieces of land to the Greeks, a community they had more in common with than the Europeans. Over the course of 400 years, they sold mostly agricultural lands around Jerusalem to the Greek Orthodox Church, including what is now downtown Jerusalem, Rehavia, Talbieh, and the land around the Knesset and the Israel Museum.
When the Patriarchate went bankrupt in the early 1920s, the British, who were then in power in Palestine, forced them to sell off pieces of land to the Yishuv, the pre-state Jewish community. The Yishuv bought the land that is now downtown Jerusalem, including the Ben-Yehuda pedestrian mall, as well as most of Rehavia, one of Jerusalem’s oldest residential neighborhoods that is also home to the prime minister’s official residence.
By 1952, in the early years of Israel’s statehood, the Patriarchate created three long-term, rental contracts for property in Talbieh, Rehavia, Nayot, a neighborhood near the Knesset, and along Hebron Road. The package included the land on which the Knesset and Israel Museum, as well as the Great Synagogue and Heichal Shlomo synagogue on King George Street are located.
When they needed money, they drew up new contracts. The fear in the government is that in a few years Israel will find itself with a patriarchate of Arabs that will in theory hold 50 percent of the land downtown. Israel was always wary of the Greek Church, the oldest and most powerful church in Jerusalem, coming under the rule of a pro-Palestinian patriarch, fearing it could result in land disputes when long-term leases began expiring.
Around 200,000 Arabs belonging to the Greek Orthodox community live within the church’s domain. When Irineos I, was officially crowned in September 2001, the Israeli government attempted to rule out his candidacy, believing he is too closely linked with the Palestinian Authority.
Under a law dating back to the sixth century emperor Justinian, the government of the Holy Land has the right to approve or disqualify candidates for the office of patriarch. The Patriarchate, however, decided to make do with the approval of the Jordanian government and Palestinian Authority.
Relations with the past patriarch weren’t always easy, either. Diodoros I was known to say that the reason the Patriarchate has lasted for more than 1,500 years in Jerusalem is because it tenaciously guards its real estate. “We don’t give up a millimeter,” he said.
At least, not for free. Some of the church contracts with the government offered a renewal option, others didn’t. Even with the renewal option, the contracts stipulate that when renewed, the rental price will be based on the property’s current value.
There are people who won’t buy because no one knows what will happen at the end of the lease. There are very many people who have bought and continue buying apartments and houses on Church land. The lofty Pinsker building on Pinsker Street, private homes on the adjacent Dubnov Street, the two seven-story apartment houses on Jabotinsky, across from the Inbal Hotel, formerly the Laromme, and property along Ehad Ha’am St. are all on Patriarchate-owned land. In addition there are various other plots owned by various different churches dotted all over the city these include the Lev Rehavia development between HaKeren HaKayemet and Shmuel Hanagid streets in Rehavia, property on Narkis St. and Hapalmach St.
Recently a group of religious Zionist Israelis paid a considerable sum to one of the churches to gain the rights to continue the lease at the end of the 49 year period. Ask your lawyer about this.
We cannot recommend as to whether or not to buy a property on church land.
However here are a number of our comments to direct you:
- The government will not allow Jewish occupied property to fall back into the hands of the Patriarch and the various other churches. It would be possible for the government to enact a law allowing those on church land to buy the freeholds of their property for symbolic or substantially discounted sums. This could well happen and, in the course of time, we consider it will.
- What is the risk? When you buy a property on church land it will be already at a reduced price and if you sell within the next five years the differences will be negligible. The property will be more difficult to sell and will have to be further discounted with the course of time (say after a lease has 40 years remaining) – unless there is no remedy for the problem provided by the government.
- If you do not worry about the value of the inheritance you will leave then buying on Church land should not worry you at all
- Property on land leased directly from the church is perhaps more problematical than land that has been leased by the government from the church and sublet via the Israel Lands Administration (Minhal) to end-users. The government will almost definitely take responsibility for leases where Minhal is involved.
- Each contract from the Church had different conditions and each has to be evaluated by your lawyer