Israel negotiates with Russia over J'lem churches

Russian FM: Israel has agreed in principle to transfer control of sites.

Church of the Holy Sepul (photo credit: AP)
Church of the Holy Sepul
(photo credit: AP)
Israel is conducting highly sensitive negotiations with Moscow over the possible return of two Russian Church properties in central Jerusalem, an Israeli Foreign Ministry official said Monday. The remarks come just days after Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that Israel had agreed in principle to transfer the St. Sergius Metochion and the building of the Russian church mission in Jerusalem to Russia. The issue is considered to be extremely delicate because Israel is concerned over the precedent such claims may have on other churches' properties in the city, including the site of the prime minister's official residence. An Israeli Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said Monday that negotiations are under way with Russia on this issue "in a positive atmosphere and in good spirits," but that no final agreement had been reached to date. But the official did not deny the Russian foreign minister's remarks. "We have been in consultations with the Israelis for three years, and a basic agreement on the transfer of the St. Sergius Metochion and the building of the Russian church mission has been finally reached," Lavrov was quoted as a saying by the Russian Interfax news agency. He added that while details of the deal were still being worked out, the "political will" exists to solve the issue. The two church properties in question, which were sold to Israel by the Soviet authorities four decades ago, are located in the city's historic Russian Compound, a series of 19th century structures adjacent to city hall. The premises of St. Sergius's church are currently used by Israel's Agriculture Ministry and government agencies for environmental protection, while the Ecclesiastical Mission houses the Jerusalem Magistrate's Court. It was not immediately clear Monday what sort of arrangement might be worked out that would be to both countries' satisfaction although various proposals are being considered, including some which would enable Israel to continue using the buildings. The Russian Embassy in Tel Aviv did not return calls for comment on Monday. Israel bought the Russian church assets, part of the Russian Compound, built during the waning years of Czarist rule from the Khrushchev government in 1964 for a shipment of citrus fruit, in what became known as the "orange deal." Until World War I, Russians comprised the largest bloc of pilgrims in the Holy Land.