Israeli Gesture to Secure Release of Woman Jailed in Russia Could Spell Trouble in Jerusalem

Israel did not give a church to the Russian government in return for releasing Naama Issachar. So what did happen with the Church of St. Alexander Nevsky in the Old City of Jerusalem? Why is this a diplomatic achievement for Israel? And how could this cause problems for Israel with all the other Christian denominations in Jerusalem?

The Alexander Nevsky Church stands next to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the Old City. It is the most important Russian holding among Jerusalem’s holy sites and a must-see for millions of pilgrims. The church was built in the late 19th century with donations from Russian believers and pilgrims. It has been run since then by the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society, headed by Russian dukes and church officials.

The problems began with the split in the Russian Orthodox Church in the wake of the Russian Revolution in 1917. The revolution forced the heads of the church to choose sides on whether to support the new Bolshevik regime, despite its clearly stated anti-religious stance – or to come out against the Communist regime. The supporters of the revolution became the “Red Church,” while its opponents split off and founded the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, known as the “White Church,” which was based mostly on Russian emigres in the West.

The British, during the Palestine Mandate period, recognized the White Church as the rightful owner of Russian religious assets in the Holy Land, but in 1948 Israel recognized the Red Church – and handed over these properties inside Israel to it. The Jordanians continued with the British policy and recognized the White Church, and its ownership of Russian religious properties in East Jerusalem and the West Bank – including the Alexander Nevsky Church.

In 2007, the two churches signed The Act of Canonical Communion to heal the schism in Moscow, under the auspices of the Moscow Patriarchate. But the Imperial Orthodox Society that controls the Nevsky Church did not completely accept the reconciliation between the two churches or the authority of the Red Church over it, and has remained somewhat autonomous. The society, which actually runs the church, is headed by Nikolai Goffman-Vorontsov, who lives in Germany. Russia has been increasing its pressure to receive the church building in recent years.

A view of the entrance to the Alexander Nevsky Church in Jerusalem, January 23, 2020.Ohad Zwigenberg

This is not the first time Israel has used historic properties in Jerusalem as means to find favor with Putin and his government. In 2008, then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s government transferred Sergei’s Compound, near the Russian Compound, in the center of the capital, to the Russian government. But while Israel officially owned the property of Sergei’s Compound and the Russian Compound, the Alexander Nevsky Church does not belong to Israel – and Israel has no right to give it away.

The way to satisfy the Russians was to agree to their request to open a proceeding to re-register the ownership of the Nevsky Church. The Russians submitted documents to the property registrar of the Land Registry in the Justice Ministry, including a cooperative agreement between the Red and White churches, in which the White Church recognized the Red Church’s ownership of the Russian holy sites in Jerusalem. The Russian request is stuck in the Justice Ministry, it seems intentionally.