Retired U.S. Ambassador Patrick Theros discusses the Israeli High Court decision in favor of an extremist group that seeks the removal of Christians from the Old City of Jerusalem and the existential risks for the Christian community that the ruling poses. At issue in the real estate case, brought by the Greek Orthodox Church of Jerusalem, are properties that straddle the Jaffa Gate into the Old City.
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UPDATE: Since this podcast was recorded on July 24, 2019, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem has submitted new evidence to the court, and has asked that the Jaffa Gate case be reopened. Click links below transcript to read press accounts:
(Accuracy of transcript not guaranteed. If you notice transcription errors, kindly let us know and we will attempt to correct them. Thank you.)
John Metaxas [00:00:00] Hi this is John. Today’s podcast tells a story that most Americans don’t know very much about. At the legal level it’s about a real estate dispute that worked its way up to the Israeli Supreme Court. In that case the court ruled in favor of an Israeli extremist group, Ateret Cohanim, and against the Greek Orthodox church of Jerusalem over properties that straddle the Jaffa Gate into the Old City of Jerusalem. It’s a sordid tale. Our guest on the podcast, retired U.S. Ambassador Patrick Theros, says Ateret Cohanim seeks the removal of non Jews from Jerusalem and has regularly harassed the Christian community in the Old City. Ateret Cohanim’s activities are funded by U.S. taxpayers through its U.S. subsidiary, which is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit corporation. The Greek Orthodox Church is not without its wrongdoers. The former Patriarch of the Church participated in a bribery scheme related to Ateret Cohanim’s acquisition of a 99-year lease to the property and the Patriarch was ousted by the Church. But beyond the question of any fault, Ambassador Theros says that the ruling could give Ateret Cohanim a stranglehold on the Jaffa Gate into the Old City, effectively cutting off the main point of Christian access to the sites of Christ’s Passion, Crucifixion and Resurrection. On another level this ruling, coupled with efforts by right-wing Israeli lawmakers to take away church properties, could put the economic survival of all of Jerusalem’s churches at risk. What most Americans don’t know is that the Greek Orthodox Church is the original church in Jerusalem dating back in an unbroken line nearly 2,000 years to Christ’s Apostle James, long before Christianity split into separate branches. The Greek Orthodox Church with the other two ancient churches, the Armenian Church and the Roman Catholics, who by the way arrived in Jerusalem from the West centuries later, all share in administration of the Old City’s Christian holy sites. The churches also rely on their real estate to survive, as the Christian population has dwindled in the Holy Land and the churches derive virtually no income from Christian pilgrims. The holy sites are not revenue generators for the Church, though the pilgrims are a major revenue source for the Israeli tourism industry. The Greek Orthodox Church is one of the biggest landowners in the Holy Land even owning the land under the Israeli Knesset, which it has leased to the Israeli state for 99 years. Another thing most Americans might not know is that the Greek Orthodox Church has owned some of its properties in the Holy Land for more than 1,000 years. Before we begin, let me mention one thing about this podcast. It’s the first one I’ve recorded remotely. Patrick, in Washington, spoke to me, in New York, via Skype. I made the mistake of leaving video off so we didn’t have the visual cues one has in a regular conversation. And it was hard to break into the conversation. That’s why I am calling this a debrief from Patrick rather than an interview. But I did get in the questions that I think needed to be asked. Finally, as you listen to this podcast consider the credibility of our source. Patrick Theros is a career U.S. Foreign Service officer who rose to the rank of U.S. Ambassador to Qatar. He’s been decorated for bravery, receiving the Superior Honor Award from the State Department for his heroic efforts to reach and rescue 147 Americans trapped in crossfire between the Nicaraguan National Guard and insurgents in the Gran Hotel in Managua during an uprising in 1967. Let’s listen to the tale Patrick tells us.
Music/Cold Open [00:03:35] Ateret Cohanim is an extremist organization that has as its openly stated objective the removal of all non Jews from the Old City of Jerusalem. And their definition of non Jews, by the way, includes a lot of people who regard themselves as Jewish, just not their kind of Jewish. For Ateret Cohanim to take over Jaffa Gate and do what it’s done elsewhere, which is to thoroughly disrupt the life of Christians in the Old City, is very close to a death knell for their presence there. This cannot stand. This is in fact, an existential threat to the continued presence of Christianity in the city of Jerusalem.
Announcer/Music [00:04:26] This is “Podcasting with John Metaxas.”
John Metaxas [00:04:30] Thank you for joining us today. Our topic today is nothing less than the survival of Christianity in the Holy Land. That’s what our guest says. The Honorable Patrick Theros, a career foreign service officer and former U.S. Ambassador to Qatar. Patrick had a 36-year career in the Foreign Service from 1963 to 1999. In addition to being Ambassador, he was Deputy Coordinator for Counterterrorism, Political Adviser to the Commander in Chief of Central Command and had postings in Jordan, Abu Dhabi, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Nicaragua as well as at the State Department in Washington. Patrick, thank you for joining us. What a distinguished career you’ve had!
Patrick Theros [00:05:11] John, thank you very much. I’m truly honored that a journalist of your caliber would take the time. I really appreciate this.
John Metaxas [00:05:20] Well, you say this is a question of survival of Christianity in the Holy Land. Let’s begin with a June 10th Israeli Supreme Court decision in favor of a Jewish settler group and against the Greek Orthodox Church. Tell us what was held in that ruling.
Patrick Theros [00:05:36] OK. That ruling essentially confirmed a lower court decision that what we believe, contend to be a fraudulent transaction gave an extremist settler group known as Ateret Cohanim back-to-back 99-year leases on the four properties around the western gate of the Old City of Jerusalem, Jaffa Gate. Why this is important, actually, almost existential for several reasons. Jaffa Gate is the entry to the Christian and Armenian quarters of the city. Jaffa Gate is near the location of the offices of many of the Christian organizations, the offices of the custos, the Franciscan custodian of the holy places, sits directly at Jaffa Gate. The way you get to the Orthodox Patriarchate is through Jaffa Gate. The way you get to the Armenian Patriarchate is through Jaffa Gate. The way 90 percent of Christian pilgrims enter the Old City to go to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Tomb and the other holy places inside the Old City of Jerusalem is through Jaffa Gate. So this is probably the key crossroads for everything important to the Christian churches in Jerusalem. And what. So we’ve lost four properties. Regardless of the manner in which we’ve lost control of these properties, what difference does it make? Ateret Cohanim is an extremist organization that has as its openly stated objective the removal of all non Jews from the Old City of Jerusalem. And their definition of non Jews, by the way, includes a lot of people who regard themselves as Jewish, just not their kind of Jewish.
Patrick Theros [00:07:34] When Ateret Cohanim has an unbroken 20 year record of acquiring other properties in the Old City of Jerusalem, some legitimately, some by intimidation or coercion, some by fraud, and then when it acquires such a property, it immediately makes the property a center for disrupting the neighborhood. They play loud music at odd hours of the night. They put armed guards on the streets in front of their properties. They lay barbed wire around properties so that to prevent people from coming. If this isn’t enough they attack passersby. They’ve, they spit on women. They’ve assaulted priests. They make it basically impossible for anyone to function in the immediate neighborhood around the property. When we call the, when the Patriarchate, when the Christians call the police, they have the police intimidated. This is a small organization but immensely powerful because it has a great deal of money and it has an organization known as Friends of Ateret Cohanim, which is a 501(c)(3) charity in the United States, from which it derives its sources of funding. And as we all know in politics money speaks and a lot of people in the Israeli body politic, probably the majority of people in the Israeli border body politic, who dislike Ateret Cohanim of what it’s doing are intimidated by it. So, you call the cops and three out of four times the cops don’t come, in half the time when they do come they arrest the person who complained rather than somebody else.
John Metaxas [00:09:18] So let’s just be clear for a second, you have served as the Washington representative of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem to the United States. So what’s your involvement with the Patriarchate right now?
Patrick Theros [00:09:31] My involvement with the Patriarchate is basically informing people in the United States about what is going on.
Patrick Theros [00:09:38] Most Americans, the overwhelming majority of Americans, are unaware that there is an indigenous Christian presence in Jerusalem and in the holy sites. It’s slightly tragicomic, but the most common question a visitor asks an indigenous Christian in Jerusalem is, who converted you? To which the answer is this is where Jesus lived. Jesus converted us. Jesus Christ. The Patriarch of Jerusalem is the one hundred and forty second holder of the seat of St. James the Apostle. This has been a continuous Christian presence there literally since Pentecost Day. Most Americans don’t know that. Most Americans are unaware that there are Christians in these quote Arab countries or the Middle East. Most, very few Americans know, that until about the 17th century in Palestine and in Syria and in Lebanon, in Jordan, Christians were probably close to a majority of the population. Certainly until the 1600s there were more Christians living in the Middle East than were living in Europe. So this huge Christian presence has now dwindled to the point where there is no place outside of Lebanon where Christians exceed 10 percent of the population. In most cases, like in the city of Jerusalem, we are probably down to one or two percent of the population. The Old City used to, 1950 the Old City had 30,000 Christians living in the Old City and another 30,000 living in the more modern parts of the city of Jerusalem. Today there are 2,000 Christians living in the Old City and another 4,000 in the whole, the whole of Jerusalem. These numbers have gone down tremendously and the more the life of Christians in the area is disrupted, the fewer and fewer there will be. We talk amongst ourselves that in another decade at the rate we’re going, the only Christian presence in Jerusalem is going to be museums. Churches. The holy museum aspect and that’s all that’s going to be there. So for Ateret Cohanim to take over Jaffa Gate and do what it’s done elsewhere, which is to thoroughly disrupt the life of Christians in the Old City, is very close to a death knell for their presence there.
John Metaxas [00:12:19] So this particular case has to do with a property that was obtained by this group from the Greek Orthodox Church.
Patrick Theros [00:12:27] Yes.
John Metaxas [00:12:28] Tell us what happened and what the church was contending, and how the court sorted that out.
Patrick Theros [00:12:34] OK. Ateret Cohanim has engaged in a number of transactions of this type. Most of them were in sort of odd neighborhoods and we didn’t pay that much attention, which was bad on us. In 2005, or 2004, excuse me, Ateret Cohanim through one of its lawyers approached the finance officer of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, the finance officer, and basically said we would like to acquire these four properties, three hotels and a house immediately adjacent to Jaffa Gate. And the way you acquire them, you don’t buy them. You get 99-year leases with all the money paid up front, generally. And they offered the. We filed papers. They offered the finance officer several millions of dollars, numbers not quite specific but up to $12 million dollars. The finance officer then obtained from the Patriarch, the then Patriarch Irenaios, a power of attorney allowing him to negotiate these four properties. The power of, Irenaios issued the power of attorney without going through the proper channels, which in this case would have been to obtain the permission of the Holy Synod. The organization of the Orthodox Church, is that the Patriarch is, in effect, the chairman of the board and CEO. But he does depend on a Synod of 17 bishops and other hierarchs. And he could not actually have given this power of attorney without doing so. Nonetheless he, without their, without their vote, without their permission. Nonetheless he did without informing the Synod. The assumption is that he participated in the bribe with the finance officer. The finance officer was given the power of attorney. He negotiated these four leases secretly with Ateret Cohanim. Technically there were four Cayman Islands and Bahamas corporate, shell corporations that took the leases, in each case. We have presented a lot of evidence to the court indicating that the leases were obtained fraudulently, that bribes were paid. That the Ateret Cohanim tried to hide, used its lawyers to prevent these transactions from appearing on the land registry in Jerusalem, whole ream of cases.
Patrick Theros [00:15:23] The transactions were discovered in early 2005 by an investigative journalist for the Israeli newspaper (unintelligible), which revealed them. The Holy Synod became, then learned about the transactions that had taken place. The Holy Synod deposed the then Patriarch Irenaios, the one who had signed the power of attorney, deposed him, reduced him in rank to a simple monk, and elected a new Patriarch, the current one, Theophilos, who promptly instituted a court case against Ateret Cohanim, to invalidate the leases. The court case. Ateret Cohanim slow rolled the case. They slow rolled the case for 14 years. I’m sorry, 13 years.
Patrick Theros [00:16:17] In late 2018, Ateret Cohanim got a judge who we, how could I say without questioning the integrity of a judge, I don’t want to sound like some people, but a judge who was married to a member of a political party that supports Ateret Cohanim. And she ruled that Ateret Cohanim acted in good faith, that Ateret Cohanim was not aware that the leases had been obtained fraudulently, decided not to hear the evidence other than Ateret Cohanim acted in good faith and ruled in favor of Ateret Cohanim. We appealed to the Supreme Court of Israel, which is the only, it’s sort of a misnomer, it’s actually the higher court of appeals, there is no permanent Supreme Court, as is in the United States. We appealed to the Israeli Supreme Court which appointed a three-judge panel to hear the case, to hear the appeals, and this immediately became a major political issue in Israel. The Supreme Court. The Minister of Justice at the time was a member of a political party which has been seeking on a separate issue to confiscate the property of churches throughout Israel and in the end the Supreme Court, the three judge panel ruled 2 to 1 to affirm the lower court decision. We have. We now are taking, in a purely legal sense we’re taking two tacks. The first is that two people have stepped forward with more evidence for the fraud including documentation indicating that Ateret Cohanim asked the Land Registry Office not to register the transaction and some other evidence as well. Of a former minister being involved in the transaction. Is easier. These are actually quite valuable properties. And so we have asked the court to reopen the case. In the meantime we’ve also asked for the court to stay the execution of the judgment so that Ateret Cohanim does not force out the current tenants. We’ve also taken a more, another tack, which is that in the past, the state has intervened quote to prevent the change in the nature of a neighborhood. A few years back an Arab citizen of Israel bought property in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem from a Jewish family — all quite a legitimate transaction — and the state intervened on the grounds that it would not permit the sale because it would change the character of the Jewish quarter of the city. We’re asking the state now to take the same decision with regard to the Christian quarter of the city at Jaffa Gate. So.
John Metaxas [00:19:19] And what has been the reaction of the Christian churches of Jerusalem to the ruling and to the appeal by the Greek Orthodox Church?
Patrick Theros [00:19:28] Right. The Christian churches of Jerusalem. One thing that these events over the last few years, the last 15 years, have caused for the first time in 2,000 years, all the Christian churches in Jerusalem are on the same side. We used to squabble a lot. There is an organization now called the Patriarchs and Heads of Churches of the Holy Land, which meets. The Greek Orthodox Patriarch, the Franciscan custos, and the Armenian Patriarch are sort of the triumvirate who speak for it primarily. They have been conducting a worldwide campaign. They’ve been to Rome, to the Vatican, to London. We’ve enlisted the support of people as far, as disparate as Prince Charles, The Prince of Wales, and Vladimir Putin and the Pope, all writing, talking, speaking to the Israeli government that this cannot stand. This is in fact an existential threat to the continued presence of Christianity in the city of Jerusalem. And recently we have been conducting the information campaign here in the United States because it has been our observation that the majority of Israeli politicians are somewhat horrified by Ateret Cohanim, but are afraid to take it on, particularly in an election period. Some Israeli politicians have other reasons for supporting them. But the main one being money, primarily. And, we have discovered that when enough foreigners, foreign politicians and foreign countries call in so to speak, the Israeli government gets gets its spine strengthened.
Patrick Theros [00:21:16] I give credit to Bebe Netanyahu. He appears to be the only senior Israeli politician who recognizes that it is not in the interests of the State of Israel to get into a confrontation with the whole of organized Christianity and has intervened several times in the past to reverse other actions taken against the churches. But this is the first time. But now he’s in the throes of election, there’s no guarantee that he will win the election and acting against Ateret Cohanim doesn’t help his political party.
John Metaxas [00:21:54] To what extent does it hurt the case of the Greek Orthodox church that there was wrongdoing by the Greek Orthodox Patriarch and one of his administrators?
Patrick Theros [00:22:05] It has certainly given us a public relations black eye. The fact that the Patriarch was deposed, reduced in rank, which was literally the limit of the authority, of the judicial authority of the church, is lost on most people. The Israelis have never conducted a criminal investigation even though they were asked to do so, into the matter. So, yeah, it hurts. And it hurts because added to stories of, and there has been some past malfeasance, that cannot be denied. Added to the fact that a lot of Palestinians don’t want the Church to deal with Israelis anywhere, not even in pre ’67 Israel, which is simply impossible because we are one, we are not a political institution, and two, without normal, without the normal activities of the real estate arms of all the churches, not just for the Greek Orthodox Church, none of us could survive. Right now, all the churches and I think collectively supplies and individually, all the churches depend on their real estate revenues, this is real estate that’s been acquired over the last thousand plus years, in order to function. For example, I mean without. The real estate provides something like 90 to 95 percent of the revenue of the Orthodox Church. And I think the same can be said for most of the other older churches there. Between them, the churches have something like 500 holy places spread all through the region. School systems with over 50,000 kids, several hospitals and health centers, charitable organizations, old folks homes and stuff like that. And we even operate a refugee relief center in north Jordan. All that is financed primarily by the real estate transactions. If you lose control of the real estate the churches can’t survive.
John Metaxas [00:24:19] And there have been attempts to limit the church’s rights to their properties introduced into the Parliament, haven’t there been?
Patrick Theros [00:24:27] Yes. There was a bill introduced a couple of years ago to the Knesset that actually the title of the bill was the Bill for the Confiscation of Church Property, of Church Real Estate. And this also. If I could go back, a little bit of history. The church, as I say, through acquisitions for a thousand years owns tons of property. And this came to a head a few years ago. There is a property in west Jerusalem and a part of Jerusalem that is solidly, completely and inexorably Israeli, called Rehavia. It’s a very large neighborhood. In 1950 the church leased this to the Jewish National Fund, which was basically organized as a quasi state organization that owns and operates real estate throughout much of Israel. The Jewish National Fund in turn sublet some of the property to developers and also to the Israeli state. So in Rehavia right now the Knesset sits on church land. The Jewish National Museum, Israeli National Museum sits on church land. The office of the Prime Minister, the office of the President, numerous other government offices and the rest of Rehavia is essentially Jerusalem’s equivalent of the Upper East Side. Extremely valuable land. Well in 1999, 1950 when a 99-year lease was signed, nobody thought, yeah, who thinks 99 years in advance. Well it is now 2019, and all of a sudden the end of the lease is coming. And the problem is that when the lease ends we are required to let the Jewish National Fund have the right of first refusal on the land. But if we can’t agree on a value, there is something in the the contract that provides for arbitration and the valuation of the land at the time when, you know, in the end of the leases will be an enormous increase in the rent paid to the Patriarchate, no matter even the most friendly arbitrator to the Jewish National Fund they’re going to see their rent go up by several digits. So the Jewish National Fund has been trying to figure out how to deal with this. In 1994, I may be off by a year or so, the Jewish National Fund bribed three lawyers to obtain the then Patriarch’s signature on an extension of the lease for a small piece of property that a developer wanted to develop but wouldn’t develop it unless the lease was extended. They were caught and all the people involved ended up in jail. Israeli jails. Are caught by the Israeli police trying to defraud the Jewish National Fund. They took $20 million dollars from them. The Patriarchate at the time said to the National fund, “Why are you doing this? We would extended, you know the $20 million you paid these lawyers, we would have extended the lease. That was to us a perfectly reasonable price.” The lawyers, the Jewish National Fund said, “No, we’ll give you $4 million.” Why four million? “Well that’s all we managed to recover of the bribe.” So we ended up back in court suing each other. And this is a very small part of Rehavia. So the Church in the end realizing that we might win the case and could be bankrupted winning it, turned around and found a very very powerful Israeli Jewish developer and sold him that small parcel of land. And you might be interested, it sold it to him for about $40 million dollars. And with that developer is now somebody who can take on that sort of case. This is $40 million dollars for a property that he can’t touch for another 25, 30 years. So you can imagine what the value of the overall properties are. That bill was submitted just before Lent in 2018. At the same time the mayor of Jerusalem (who like mayors of all capital cities is always cash strapped. I’m a native Washingtonian. I can tell you we spend all our time fighting with the federal government over the fact that we can’t collect a lot of taxes) passed an ordinance, passed an ordinance redefining what constitutes church properties. The actual churches can’t be taxed, but redefining what constitutes church properties. And on the same day, I believe, that the bill for the confiscation of church land was sent to the Knesset, the mayor sent a bill to the churches for about $200 million dollars in back taxes without defining either what the property was that was being taxed or how far back the back taxes went and froze the bank accounts of all the churches in Jerusalem. And then, and the court case, all these things happened within two days of each other. And that was right at the beginning of Lent. So the churches needed a dramatic moment, so they closed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre right at the beginning of Lent when millions of tourists are coming to Israel. The Israeli government I must say moved quickly on the first two cases. The Justice Minister was called in and told to withdraw the bill immediately. And the mayor was apparently beaten about head and shoulders until he discovered that he had other things to do and he withdrew his own actions. The court case of course takes its own route. So this is where we are. There are political elements in Israel who see votes to be made by going after church church properties. There are some people who have vested economic interests, as for example shareholders of the Jewish National Fund. And there are people who have an ideological reason to essentially eject the Christian community from the city of Jerusalem.
John Metaxas [00:31:07] And so where does the case stand now.
Patrick Theros [00:31:10] OK, the case is we have filed a writ, I think is the technical term, to the Supreme Court asking them to stay the decision and prevent Ateret Cohanim from expelling the existing tenants from these properties or subtenants in this case. And we’ve asked the Supreme Court to consider new evidence and send it back for a trial. And we’ve asked the Israeli government to intervene as well. All of those things are in the pending status right now.
John Metaxas [00:31:46] And if none of those things happen, if you’re not successful, what do you think are the possible ramifications?.
Patrick Theros [00:31:54] For us, it’s a nightmarish scenario. If Ateret Cohanim expels the tenants and does to those four properties what it has done to every other property that they’ve taken over in the Old City, it will be impossible for Christians to enter and leave the Old City through Jaffa Gate, will be impossible for the churches to conduct their rituals and religious processions and so forth. It will be impossible for a very large percentage of the remaining two thousand Christians resident in the Old City to have a normal life, so they won’t be able to conduct their businesses. It is a. We expect to see barbed wire up, disruption of life. Oh, and the other thing is Ateret Cohanim. We regularly find churches next to Ateret Cohanim properties being vandalized. Garbage tossed into them, windows broken and so forth. So we fully expect Ateret Cohanim to do everything possible, to make it impossible for the churches to conduct their business in the city, in the Old City of Jerusalem. You know, this a desperate. And as the lawyer said, until now they bought obscure properties in obscure parts of the city and they were a nuisance. And, but they weren’t a threat. This is a threat.
Patrick Theros [00:33:17] This is a threat that if they take over and if the same thing happens that happened elsewhere, where the police don’t show up to keep the roads clear, where the police don’t arrest people for beating up people in the street, where the police don’t keep armed settlers off the streets, where if they, if what happened before happens again, we don’t know how we could function.
John Metaxas [00:33:41] All right. On that note let’s ask that you keep us up to date on your progress on this, Ambassador Theros. And we thank you very much for taking the time with us.
Patrick Theros [00:33:50] Thank you John. I deeply appreciate the opportunity and I wish you luck. Thank you.
Announcer/Music [00:33:55] To listen to more podcasts with John Metaxas, go to JohnMetaxas.com.
Links to recent press accounts since this podcast was recorded on July 24, 2019: