Tycoons to help repossess Russian church buildings in Jerusalem

TEL AVIV, November 19 (RIA Novosti) - The head of Russia's Audit Chamber said on Monday that two billionaires had agreed to help repossess Orthodox church buildings in Jerusalem that Israel bought from Soviet authorities 40 years ago.

The two buildings - St. Sergius' church and the Ecclesiastical Mission - are part of Jerusalem's so-called Russian Compound. The churches were built in the final decades of Tsarist rule and partially sold to Israel by the Nikita Khrushchev's government in 1964. Israel paid for the assets with a shipment of citrus fruit in what went down in history as the "orange deal".

Chief Auditor Sergei Stepashin, who is also head of the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society, said businessman Roman Abramovich, governor of the Chukotka Region and owner of London's Chelsea FC, and Russian-born billionaire Arkady Gaidamak who lives in Israel, had accepted the Russian government's request that they cover expenses for moving institutions currently accommodated in the buildings to other premises.

St. Sergius' church is currently occupied by Israel's Ministry of Agriculture and government agencies for environmental protection, while the Ecclesiastical Mission houses the Jerusalem Magistrate's Court.

Stepashin said the handover of the property was likely to be legally fixed next year. He said his hopes were based on "agreements reached with the Israeli side on the highest political level" and Russia's guarantees. "There are people who are ready to help those occupying the buildings leave them," Stepashin told a Russian diaspora meeting in Israel.

The Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society was established by Emperor Alexander III in 1882 to facilitate Orthodox Christian pilgrimages to the Holy Land and to promote Palestinian studies and humanitarian cooperation with the peoples of the biblical region.

In the Soviet era, the society was restructured as part of the National Academy of Sciences. With religious activity in the country largely suppressed during those years, it could no longer arrange pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and focused entirely on Palestine-related research, holding regular symposiums and publishing an almanac.

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