A top aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Tuesday that the transfer of church property in Jerusalem’s Old City to Moscow’s hands is at the top of the Israeli-Russian diplomatic agenda.
“The topic of Alexander’s Courtyard has long been at the top of the agenda of Russian-Israeli relations,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters, a day after Hebrew media reported that Putin had sent a letter to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett demanding that the property be handed over.
“We expect the Israeli leadership to assist us in order to complete the process as is necessary,” Peskov added.
Moscow has for years been seeking to secure the Alexander’s Courtyard church compound, but a recent court decision set back its plans by nullifying recognition of its claims to the complex, located near the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Officials in Jerusalem are worried the subject could exacerbate tensions with Russia, already on the rise over its invasion of Ukraine.
Bennett has been criticized for showing deference to Russia vis-a-vis Ukraine, refusing to send weapons and refraining from blaming Moscow for alleged atrocities. The moves are thought to be aimed at keeping Russia from targeting Israeli planes on bombing runs over Syria. Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, meanwhile, has been more vocally critical of Russia, and Israel has voted against Moscow at the UN several times lately.
Last month, the Jerusalem District Court annulled a decision giving the Russian government control of Alexander’s Courtyard.
The verdict was given following a petition by the Orthodox Palestine Society of the Holy Land, which owned the property until last year.
In 1859, Czar Alexander II purchased the land on which Alexander’s Court — also known as the Alexander Nevsky Church — was built. Until the Russian Revolution of 1917, the area was under the control of the Russian Imperial government.
Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu approved giving Alexander’s Courtyard to Russia in 2020. The move was seen as a goodwill gesture following Russia’s release of Naama Issachar, a young Israeli woman who was imprisoned after a small quantity of marijuana was found in her backpack during a layover in Moscow.
After the Russian government was registered as the rightful owner of the church, the Land Registry Commissioner responded to a string of appeals against the move, explaining that the Russian Federation had been recognized by international bodies and by the State of Israel as a “continuing state” of the Russian Empire.
In his decision on the appeal, Judge Mordechai Kaduri ruled that since Netanyahu had designated Alexander’s Courtyard as a “holy site,” the only body able to decide on the matter is the Israeli government, given various religious and political considerations.
Bennett set up a panel on the issue last July, but it has yet to convene.