Russian President Vladimir Putin wants state ownership of the Maria Magdalena Monastery, the Ascension Monastery, and the Viri Galilaei Church (People of the Galilee) all situated on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. The Church of the Ascension towers atop the Mount of Olives preserving the memory of Christ’s ascension. The bell tower echoes across Jerusalem’s Old City and beyond.
On behalf of President Putin, former Prime Minister of Russia Sergei Stepashin, the man responsible on behalf of assets in Israel (he is defined as “the head of the Palestinian Imperial Orthodox Society”), is filing a lawsuit in an Israeli court to claim ownership of the three historical churches.
The new lawsuit is clearly intended for internal propaganda in light of Putin’s declining popularity to garner support from Russian citizens. Putin is brandishing his muscles before the international community as these churches are considered holy throughout the Christian world.
Putin is angry
Putin’s anger is compounded by the recent decision of the Jerusalem district court not to transfer Alexander Courtyard, a complex located 70 meters from the Church of the Sepulcher in the Jerusalem’s Old City to Russia. Czar Alexander II purchased the land in 1859 and until the Russian Revolution of 1917 the area was under the control of the Russian Imperial government.
The Alexander Nevsky Church was built on the courtyard compound between 1896-1903 and Israel decided to leave the site in the hands of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC).
Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu approved giving Alexander’s Courtyard to Russia in 2020. The move was a goodwill gesture following Russia’s release of Naama Issachar, an Israeli woman who was imprisoned after a small quantity of marijuana was found in her backpack during a layover in Moscow.
After the Russian government was registered as the owner of the church built in the courtyard, Israel’s Land Registry Commissioner appealed the decision. The judge ruled that since Netanyahu had designated Alexander’s Courtyard as a “holy site,” the only body able to decide on the matter is the Israeli government given the religious, political, and international implications of transferring a church to a foreign state.
Putin now expects Prime Minister-designate Binyamin Netanyahu to keep his promise and transfer ownership of the Alexander Court complex in Jerusalem in his new government. Russia has promised to “apply pressure to gain control of the asset.”
Now Putin is threatening to take control of more churches on the Mount of Olives. This is setting up to be another head-to-head battle on the Russian-Israeli, Putin-Bibi front, with the Church finding itself between a rock and a hard place, between politics and faith.
Israel’s policy has always been to keep churches open and free for places of worship unrestricted by government interference. In the face of Russian threats and Putin’s need to save face in the midst of his unending Ukrainian war, that may not be easy this time around for prime minister elect Mr. Netanyahu.
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