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Israel Says Occupation of Building Not an Act Against Orthodox Church

The occupation of a building in Jerusalem’s Christian Quarter by a group of Orthodox Jews is “an ordinary commercial real estate transaction” and of only minor political significance, according to Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.

His office issued a statement Tuesday defending the group’s action and the $1.8 million in housing assistance it received from Israel’s Construction and Housing Ministry.

The statement stressed that the building, known as St. John’s Hospice, is not a holy site, but an ordinary building to which the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate has claims.

“Presenting the leasing arrangement as an affront to the Greek Orthodox Church or an infringement of its rights contradicts the facts,” the statement said. It added that Israel rejects the “attempt to slander its image on the sensitive issue of respect for the holy places.”

The statement did not deal with the actual settlement of Jews inside the Christian Quarter, which has drawn criticism from the U.S. government and from a number of American Jewish organizations.

Much of the public criticism in Israel has been directed at Construction and Housing Minister David Levy.

“How dare a minister in Israel take such an unreasonable step?” Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek said in an interview with the daily Ha’aretz.

PROPRIETY OF FUNDS QUESTIONED

Meanwhile, new questions have been raised about the propriety of the Housing Ministry allocation.

While the prime minister’s statement said the money was part of the government’s general assistance to building projects throughout the country, it turned out Wednesday that the funds came from a portion of the ministry budget earmarked for “evictions” so that new building can take place.

Israel’s High Court of Justice was scheduled to hear an appeal Thursday of a lower court decision saying the group of Orthodox Jews should be evicted from the building.

But the Panamanian company that leased the place to the group has asked the court session be delayed until the Greek Orthodox Church suspends the demonstrations against the group’s presence.

At the United Nations, a spokesman told reporters Tuesday that U.N. Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar “was particularly disturbed to learn of the involvement of some Israeli officials in the financial transactions that led to the move of Jewish settlers to the Christian Quarter. Such actions can only impede efforts aimed at promoting a peaceful settlement.”

Zehdi Terzi, the Palestine Liberation Organization’s U.N. observer, sent a letter to Perez de Cuellar asking him to “reaffirm the illegality” of the settlement of Israelis in the Christian Quarter and to ensure their removal.

(JTA correspondent Allison Kaplan at the United Nations contributed to this report.)

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