Russian President Vladimir Putin demanded that Israel grant his country control of the Alexander Courtyard in Jerusalem as the previous Israeli government had promised, in a letter delivered to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Sunday.
Putin’s letter came barely a day after the Foreign Ministry in Moscow slammed Foreign Minister Yair Lapid for accusing Russia of war crimes in Ukraine, saying that Israel is using Ukraine to cover up for its own conflict with the Palestinians. The Russian Foreign Ministry also summoned Israeli Ambassador Alexander Ben Zvi for a reprimand on Sunday.
Transferring the ownership of the church land could cause diplomatic trouble for Israel at a time when its Western allies have been sanctioning Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.
The Alexander Courtyard, also known as the Alexander Nevsky Church and the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, is in the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City.
Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised Putin that Russia could take over the landmark in 2020, as one of a series of gestures meant to help free Naama Issachar, an Israeli woman held in a Russian jail on drug charges. Soon after, Israel’s Land Registry commissioner listed the Russian government as the owner of the church.
The courtyard had been part of a dispute between Orthodox Church organizations. Jerusalem District Court Judge Mordechai Kaduri canceled the transfer of ownership to the Russian government in March.
The Israeli government argued that the Russian Federation is the successor of the Russian Imperial Government, which was registered as the owner during Ottoman rule.
The Orthodox Palestine Society of the Holy Land, which owned the site until it was granted to the current Russian government, sued, arguing that the transfer of ownership was political. Kaduri said that Prime Minister Naftali Bennett would have to decide, because it is a diplomatic matter.
Former Russian prime minister Sergei Stepashin, chairman of the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society, said during a visit to Israel in recent days that Russia is “fighting for a return of the compound, and it is very difficult.”
Stepashin accused Israel of “playing both sides, playing ping pong” on the issue.