Putin demands Israel give Russia control of historic Jerusalem church

Russia's President Vladimir Putin (L) and Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Kirill arrive for the meeting with Russian Orthodox church bishops in Moscow, on February 1, 2013. As troops loyal to Russian President Vladimir Putin were seizing control of Crimea, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow deduced that an "internal political crisis" in Ukraine was threatening its territorial integrity. | Reuters/Sergei Gunyeev/Ria Novosti/Kremlin/Files

Russian President Vladimir Putin has sent a letter to the Israeli government requesting that it transfer control of a historic church in Jerusalem to Russian custody.

The Church of St. Alexander Nevsky was the subject of a letter recently sent by Putin to Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Haaretz reported Wednesday.

The church property, also known as the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, is located in the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem's Old City and was once controlled by Tsarist Russia.

Israel is said to be “handling the matter,” according to unnamed sources referenced by Haaretz. However, the sources did not provide further elaboration.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov earlier this week told the media that the church transfer is a major priority in the current diplomatic relations between Russia and Israel.

“The topic of Alexander’s Courtyard has long been at the top of the agenda of Russian-Israeli relations,” stated Peskov, as reported by The Times of Israel. “We expect the Israeli leadership to assist us in order to complete the process as is necessary.”

Handing the church to Russia would be considered a controversial move in light of other nations enacting sanctions on Russia in response to its invasion of Ukraine.

Former Russian Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin, who chairs the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society, recently said that Russia is "fighting for a return of the compound, and it is very difficult," according to The Jerusalem Post. He believes Israel was "playing both sides, playing ping pong" on the dispute.

Named after a famous Medieval Russian prince, the Nevsky church is located near the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a holy site believed to be where Jesus' tomb was located.

The Nevsky church property was initially purchased by Tsar Alexander II in 1859 and remained under Russian control until the 1917 Russian Revolution, according to The Times of Israel.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had agreed to return the property to Russia in 2020 in return for the Eastern European nation freeing an Israeli citizen being held on drug charges.

The Orthodox Palestine Society of the Holy Land, which had owned the property, filed suit, with the Jerusalem District Court annulling the 2020 decision in a ruling last month.

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