Russian-Jewish tycoons agree to fund new Jerusalem courthouse to resolve church property dispute

Russian billionaire tycoons Arkadi Gaydamak and Roman Abramovich have agreed to fund the construction of a new Jerusalem courthouse to resolve a sensitive church property dispute with Russia, officials said Sunday. The accord, which has been reached with Russian government representatives and is expected to be signed next year, would see the Jewish businessmen pay for the construction of new quarters for the Jerusalem Magistrate's Court so that the current landmark building in the city's Russian compound can be handed over to the Russians. Israel has been negotiating the return of two Russian Church properties in central Jerusalem with Russia for the last three years, after Russian President Vladimir V. Putin first claimed the buildings as property of the Russian Orthodox Church. 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 prime minister's official residence. The Israeli government position has been that the Russians would need to fund the construction of the new buildings - including the courthouse - if they want Israel to vacate the current site. An Israeli Foreign Ministry spokeswoman declined comment Sunday, citing ongoing talks between the two governments. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has said that Israel had agreed in principle to transfer the St. Sergius Church and the building of the Russian church mission in Jerusalem to Russia. 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 near city hall. The premises of the St. Sergius 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. Putin has long been pushing ahead with claims on a couple of buildings in the city's historic Russian Compound which are owned by the Russian Orthodox Church, including the landmark city building housing the court. Israel bought the Russian church assets, part of the so-called 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 composed the largest group of pilgrims in the Holy Land. The offer by Gaydamak, who has suggested he would be running in next year's Jerusalem mayoral race, was his latest high-profile move in the country. Gaydamak, who has been facing suspicions of money-laundering, has been under police investigation for years. He faces an international arrest warrant because of a French investigation into alleged arms trafficking to Angola in the early 1990s, but has never been convicted of any crime. At the same time, the philanthropist won praise from some Israelis for stepping in to help the hard-hit residents of the southern border town of Sderot, who have been the target of seven years of ongoing Palestinian rocket attacks from the nearby Gaza Strip. Likewise, during last year's Lebanon War, he funded the evacuation of thousands of northerners for an all-expenses-paid beach vacation until the fighting ended.