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21 August 2007
Israel willing to return Russia's Holy City property - FM Lavrov

Israel has agreed in principle to return historical Russian church assets in Jerusalem that it bought from Soviet authorities in a mock deal 40 years ago, Russia's foreign minister said Thursday.

"Israel has tentatively given its consent to have the church of St. Sergius and the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission re-registered as Russian property, and particulars are now being discussed," Sergei Lavrov said.

The two buildings are part of Jerusalem's so-called Russian Compound, built in the final decades of Tsarist rule and partly sold to Israel by the Nikita Khrushchev government in 1964. Israel paid for the assets with a batch of citrus fruit in what went down in history as the "orange deal."

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

Lavrov said that the matter had been under negotiation for some three years now and that Israel is finally showing the political will to hand the property back.

The minister spoke to reporters after a congress of the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society, which was established by Emperor Alexander III in 1882 to facilitate Orthodox Christian pilgrimage to the Holy Land and to promote Palestinian studies and humanitarian cooperation with the peoples of the biblical region.

The society's newly elected chair, Auditing Chamber President Sergei Stepashin, said he would concentrate his efforts on recovering Russian property in the Holy Land while also working to promote Russian culture and the language in Palestinian-administered territories.

"We could make substantial progress this year toward solving the issue [of property return]," Stepashin said.

In the Soviet era, the society was restructured as part of the National Academy of Sciences. With all religious activity in the country suppressed in 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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