November 26, 2020

Church sold Jerusalem neighborhood in 2012 for $3 million — report [Cayman Islands company]

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By TOI STAFF From The Times of

Greek Orthodox Patriarchate said to have relinquished to private companies registered in offshore tax havens

The Greek Orthodox Church reportedly sold a Jerusalem neighborhood five years ago to an investment company abroad for some $3 million.

Following revelations of the church’s land sales in Jerusalem, Caesarea, and Jaffa, the Haaretz newspaper reported Friday that it had seen three of the contracts between the church and private investment companies registered in Caribbean tax havens, underlining that the transactions took place several years ago for extremely low prices.

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One contract, for the Givat Oranim neighborhood in southwestern Jerusalem, which has 240 apartments and a commercial center, reportedly showed that in 2012 the land was sold to Kronti Investments Limited registered in the Virgin Islands for $3.3 million. The land was then sold again five years later to Oranim Limited, registered in the Cayman Islands, for an unspecified price.

The Greek Orthodox Church — the second biggest owner of land in Israel after the Israel Lands Authority — acquired some 4,500 dunams (1,110 acres) of real estate in the center of Jerusalem during the 19th century, primarily for agriculture. In the 1950s, just after Israel’s independence, it agreed to lease its land to the JNF for 99 years — with an option to extend.

The lease to the Jewish National Fund on Givat Oranim expires in 52 years. Jerusalem property owners fear that when the lease expires they will face the choice of either paying high sums to renew their leaseholds or having to sell and move.

Meanwhile, six dunams (1.5 acres) of prime real estate around the famous clock tower in Jaffa, with dozens of businesses, were sold in 2013 for only $1.5 million to Bona Trading Limited, registered in and the Grenadines. That lease runs out in 81 years.

Jaffa’s clock tower, built in 1903, and one of seven dating back to Ottoman rule in Israel, stands at the entrance to old Jaffa, much of which has undergone renovation and gentrification in recent years and is today popular with tourists and Israelis alike.

The iconic clock tower of Jaffa, November 21, 2011. (Liron Almog/FLASH90)
Some 430 dunams (100 acres) of land in Caesarea, including parts of the national archaeological park, were sold in 2015 for a mere $1 million (around 3.8 million) to Senet Ventures Inc., also registered in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. That deal was for land that the church has leased to the state until 2108.

In 2013, the church reportedly sold the land that Caesarea Investments was leasing to a Caribbean-registered company called Bona Trading for NIS 5.2 million (then worth around $1.5 million).

In December, Caesarea Investments claimed in court that it should have had first option to purchase the land and said the deal with Bona Trading should be canceled.

The patriarchy has reportedly also sold most of its land holdings in Ramle, Nazareth and Tiberias as well as several buildings in Jerusalem and Jaffa.

Peter Habash, an activist in the Jaffa Christian Orthodox community, told Haaretz, “This isn’t a sale, it’s a theft. When you sell an asset for a fraction of its worth it doesn’t make sense.”

In July some 1,500 owners of properties in Jerusalem’s wealthiest neighborhoods — including Rehavia and Talbieh — discovered that the church had sold the land on which their homes sit, and for which their leases run out in 30 years, to private real estate companies.

The deals were reportedly made not only behind the backs of the homeowners, but also without the knowledge of the Jewish National Fund — to which the church originally leased the land for 99 years — and the state.

Sue Surkes contributed to this report.

IMAGE: Illustrative image of Shai Agnon Boulevard in Givat Oranim (CC BY Gilabrand, Wikipemedia commons)

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