Russian Orthodox Church Receives Land in Jericho

Novosti reports:

Russia has received three plots of land in Jericho in the West Bank, a RIA Novosti correspondent said on Monday from a ceremony in Moscow to hand over land ownership deeds.

Russian Audit Chamber chief Sergei Stepashin, who heads the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society, said prior to the ceremony that, “The decision to return to Russia plots of land in the Holy Land was made during a recent meeting with Palestinian National Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas… the first decision will be implemented today.”

The plots of land had once belonged to the pre-revolution Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society, and they include an area known as “Moscovia” and a tree supposedly climbed by Zacchaeus when he wanted to see Jesus. The JTA notes that this is “one of several efforts by Russia to gain a religiously symbolic foothold in Israel and the West Bank”. I’ve blogged on this trend more than once: last year I noted an attempt by the Russian Orthodox Church to retake control of property in Palestinian areas lost in 1917, and more recently I blogged on the restoration of a compound in Israeli Jerusalem; in this last case, Novosti adds the detail that funding was provided by the billionaires Roman Abramovich and Arkady Gaidamak (This was doubtless a nice puff for Gaidamak, who owns the paper. I blogged on his Jerusalem mayoral ambitions here).

Eyeing these developments warily will be the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, Theophilos, who recently complained about Russian Orthodox “aggressive policy”, both now and historically. The Russian Orthodox Church’s all-purpose pundit Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin responded to this in a recent newspaper interview:

I am certain that the scandal arose accidentally. Many people called me and said it’s a conspiracy against the Church or a CIA plan…

Let the comments made by the Blessed Patriarch Theophilos about the Russian presence weigh on his conscience.

Today, many people acknowledge the positive contribution that Russia and the Church made in the Holy Land. We have built schools and hospitals, and preserved ancient Christian sanctuaries from desecration. We have given up our people’s lives so that holy places would stay in the hands of the Jerusalem Greek Patriarchy. This was during the Crimean War, waged by Russia to ensure the Jerusalem Patriarchy would continue to exist. If it wasn’t for Russia, it is possible there would not be any Orthodox presence in the Holy Land. So I cannot agree with such a negative estimation of Russia’s and the Church’s role in the Holy Land.

Time calls the Russian Orthodox Church Russia’s “main ideological arm and a vital foreign policy instrument”.

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