The District Court in East Jerusalem has convicted an Israeli businessman of fraud. Benno Zussman was found guilty of fabricating documents relating to land owned by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Jerusalem.
The court's proceedings revealed that Zussman had deceived the Patriarchate as he forged contracts signed with the Jewish National Fund for the sale and lease of huge tracts of land in the Holy City. The Israeli media described the deals as "the most sordid real estate scandals in Israel's history."
Zussman was brought to justice after he had fled to Romania and Israel signed an extradition agreement with the government in Bucharest in 2010.
The Patriarchate expressed its satisfaction with the decision of the court which, it said, serves justice, despite the lengthy wait for the trial to take place. "This will help us to retain our lands which were stolen through fraud," a spokesman said.
Many sources reported that the Greek Orthodox Church in Jerusalem, which owns a great deal of land in the city, is involved in land sales with a number of Israeli real estate companies. The Palestinian Authority has warned the Patriarchate to halt such deals. The Israeli newspaper Maariv reported in May this year that although it had stopped selling its properties it continued to rent them. The agreements between the Patriarchate and leaseholders give the latter the full right to rent and sell the land as soon as the leases end in 2051.
Many of Israel's main government buildings, such as the Knesset, Israel's presidential residence and office, the Chief Rabbinate and hundreds of units for Jewish settlers are built on lands leased from the Patriarchate, media sources said. These areas include public parks in central Jerusalem.
According to a Hebrew language website, Zussman was convicted of a deal which involved land covering thousands of acres on which apartments and public buildings were built. The value of the deal, which was a result of months of secret negotiations, is estimated at £12.5 million. The deal was signed by the Greek Patriarch Theophilus III and his financial deputy in March 2011.
At least one of the deals was approved by the higher authorities of the Orthodox Church in Greece. Around 1,500 square metres of prime land in Jerusalem was sold for £6m to an Israeli developer acting on behalf of settlers.
The International Middle East Media Centre said in a report about the role of the Patriarchate in ceding the land to Jews that Greek Orthodox Christians in Palestine are boycotting the Patriarchate for its violations, especially since it does not pay attention to the needs of its followers in Palestine and in occupied Jerusalem. Most of them are forcedo leave their homes as they have no place to live while the Patriarchate is leasing its land to settlers and Jewish organisations.