June 14 (UPI) -- Christian groups are banding together in Israel to oppose the sale of three buildings to a Jewish group that they say is trying to "take over."
The Israeli Supreme Court on Monday upheld a lower court's ruling that a Jewish settler organization, Ateret Cohanim, could lease three church properties in Jerusalem's Old City. The Greek Orthodox Church, which owns the buildings, said the deal was originally signed in 2004 by a corrupt church official who didn't have proper authorization.
The case has dragged on for 14 years as the Greek Orthodox Church accused Ateret Cohanim of bribery and corruption. The church said it sought to protect the Christian character of the Old City of Jerusalem.
The lower court ruled in 2017 that the Greek Orthodox Church failed to provide sufficient evidence that the agreements were fraudulent.
The Palestinian Greek Orthodox Archbishop Atallah Hanna said the court's decision was "illegal and illegitimate."
"The seizure of the historic Jaffa Gate properties by extremist settler organizations is a new catastrophe to the misfortunes suffered by the Christians in this Holy City," Hanna said.
Court documents show three front companies signed leases worth $1.8 million for three properties in 2004. The front companies work for Ateret Cohanim, a settlement group that populates Old City and other East Jerusalem neighborhoods with Jewish residents to the objection of Palestinians.
Ultimately, Palestinians want the Old City and Jerusalem's Arab neighborhoods to become part of the future capital for the Palestinian state but the Jewish settlements undermine that effort.
The Greek Orthodox Church demoted Patriarch Iranaios in 2005 for signing the deal and later ousted him. Iranaios was cleared by the Palestinian Authority. He blamed former finance director Nikolas Papdimos for making a deal he didn't have the right to make.
Several Christian denominations issued a joint statement criticizing the Supreme Court's ruling. They are concerned that other Christian holy sites, including Church of the Holy Sepulchre, could be lost to Jewish settlers.