Avishai Grinzaig – Jerusalem District Court Judge Mordechai Kaduri has canceled the registration of the Russian government’s ownership rights of Alexander’s Courtyard in Jerusalem. The ruling followed an appeal by the Orthodox Palestine Society of the Holy Land, which owned the church until it was handed over last year to the Russian government, and which was represented by Advs. Shay Gimelstein, Ilan Golod and Israel Klein of S. Horowitz & Co law firm.
Alexander’s Courtyard is an extremely sensitive piece of property near the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem’s Old City and is also known as the Church of Alexander Nevsky. During Ottoman times the property was registered in the name of the Russian imperial government.
In August 2017, the current Russian government filed a registration request for ownership rights with Israel’s inspector in charge of the land registry.
In October 2020, the then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu paved the way for the Russian government on the matter, in gratitude or in payment for the release of Naama Issachar, a young Israeli arrested in transit in Moscow for allegedly smuggling 10 grams of hashish and sentenced to seven and a half years in prison.
Netanyahu decided that the dispute between different Christian sects over ownership fell into the category of “holy sites’ and according to British Mandate law from 100 years ago, it was a dispute that could not be resolved in a court of law.
Shortly afterward Israel’s inspector in charge of the land registry accepted the request of the Russian government and registered the Russian government as the owner of Alexander’s Courtyard.
The Land Registry Commissioner dismissed appeals against the registration and ruled that the Russian Federation (current Russian government) was recognized by international bodies and by the authorized bodies in the State of Israel as “the successor state” of the Russian imperial government and therefore, as part of the registration renewal order, the land should be registered in the name of the Russian Federation and not in the name of organizations representing the Russian imperial government, which no longer exists.
Some of the objections of registering the property in the name of the Russian government were that the renewal of the registration was a main part of the deal worked out between the Israeli and Russian governments for the release of Naama Issachar from prison in Russia after she was probably incarcerated for solely political reasons. The Land Registry Commissioner only referred indirectly to these claims, when saying that there was no justification in relating the renewal of the registration to political-diplomatic reasons and the inspector had done will not consider these claims.
Huge diplomatic sensitivity
Judge Kaduri referred to the huge diplomatic sensitivity regarding the registration of ownership. In a long and detailed ruling he said that because then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had set that the property is a holy site by definition, then the competent body to determine who owns the holy site is not an administrative body or the court – but the Israeli government, which will have to decide the issue taking into account various religious, political and diplomatic considerations.
In other words, the hot potato has now been passed by the court to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who must decide the matter amid the war between Russia and Ukraine and the massive sanctions imposed by the West on Russia.
Bennett set up a committee to examine the matter in July 2021, which despite the length of time that has passed, has yet to meet.
Now the court has given Bennett no choice but to decide on the ownership of the Old City church, which has already caused major tensions between the Israeli government and Vladimir Putin’s government.
The Orthodox Palestine Society of the Holy Land was represented by Advs. Shay Gimelstein, Ilan Golod and Israel Klein of S. Horowitz & Co law firm.