Tensions between Jerusalem and Moscow are rising over the contested Alexander Nevsky Russian church property in Jerusalem’s Old City. Russian President Vladimir Putin recently sent a personal letter to Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett demanding Israel immediately hand over control of the church. The issue is one of the latest flashpoints in the increasingly contentious relations between the two countries during the Russian war against Ukraine. Linda Gradstein reports from Jerusalem.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett must immediately follow through on a promise given to Russia by his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, and transfer ownership of a Jerusalem church to Moscow, wrote Vladimir Putin in a strongly worded letter to Israel’s premier on Sunday.
The timing of the demand is significant, as it came shortly after Foreign Minister Yair Lapid harshly criticized the Russian invasion of Ukraine, accusing Moscow of war crimes.
Israel also recently voted to remove Russia from the UN’s Human Rights Council, a move which sparked Russian officials to summon the Israeli ambassador in Moscow for a dressing down
The Alexander Nevsky Church, also known as the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, is a prominent holy site for the Russian Orthodox Church, located in the Christian Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem.
During the Ottoman Empire era, the site was registered as belonging to the “Russian kingdom.” In 2017, Russia requested that Israel officially transfer ownership of the church and its compound to Moscow.
Initially, the Israeli government held that such a change in ownership would need to be investigated and decided upon by the Supreme Court.
But after Israeli-American Na’ama Issachar was imprisoned for traveling through a Russian airport with a small amount of cannabis in her possession in 2020, then-premier Netanyahu agreed to formally return the site back to Moscow.
Israeli land registry records were changed to state that the compound belonged to Russia later that year.
However, after taking office, Bennett reportedly ordered that the decision be reversed and the matter once again be determined by the Supreme Court.
Up until recently, it had appeared that a Russia was willing to wait until the case played out in an Israeli court, but Lapid’s comments make have ended Moscow’s patience.
“Now we are fighting for the return of the Compound, and it is very difficult: we were almost there, we worked for five years, we found all the historical documents, but the situation with Ukraine occurred, and Israel behaved as it often does – playing with both sides, playing ping pong with everyone,” Sergei Stepashin, who is currently visiting Israel and manages Russia’s properties in the Middle East, told media.
Israel had yet to respond to Putin’s demand.