Russia has received three plots of land in Jericho in the West Bank, a RIA Novosti correspondent said on Monday from a ceremony in Moscow to hand over land ownership deeds.
Russian Audit Chamber chief Sergei Stepashin, who heads the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society, said prior to the ceremony that, «The decision to return to Russia plots of land in the Holy Land was made during a recent meeting with Palestinian National Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas… the first decision will be implemented today.»
The Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society was established by Emperor Alexander III in 1882 to facilitate Orthodox Christian pilgrimages to the Holy Land and to promote Palestinian studies.
In the Soviet era, the society was restructured as part of the National Academy of Sciences. With religious activity in the country largely suppressed during those years, it could no longer arrange pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and focused entirely on Palestine-related research.
Hassan Saleh, the mayor of Jericho, handed over to Stepashin an ownership deed for a plot of land with an area of 12,000 square meters (129,000 square feet) containing the biblical sycamore tree which, according to St. Luke's Gospel, the tax collector Zacchaeus climbed up in order to better see Jesus Christ.
The Russian Orthodox Church was also given two other land plots in Moscovia, which in Arabic means «Moscow land».
Stepashin told those present that Russian culture, language, and Orthodox centers would be established on the plots of land.
In November last year, Stepashin said two Russian billionaires had agreed to help return Orthodox church buildings in Jerusalem that Israel bought from Soviet authorities 40 years ago to Russian ownership.
The two buildings — St. Sergius church and the Ecclesiastical Mission — are part of Jerusalem's so-called Russian Compound. The churches were built in the final decades of tsarist rule in Russia and partially sold to Israel by the Soviet Union in 1964. Israel paid for the assets with a shipment of citrus fruit in what went down in history as the «orange deal».
Stepashin said businessman Roman Abramovich, governor of the Chukotka Region and owner of London's Chelsea FC, and Russian-born billionaire Arkady Gaidamak, who lives in Israel, had accepted the Russian government's request that they cover expenses for moving Israeli institutions currently accommodated in the buildings to other premises.
St. Sergius' church was previously occupied by Israel's Ministry of Agriculture and government agencies for environmental protection, while the Ecclesiastical Mission housed the Jerusalem Magistrate's Court.
The Israeli ambassador to Russia, Anna Azari, said in May 2008 that the church would be handed over to Russia in the coming months. «The process of handing it over is underway, we intend to complete it soon,» she said.
Also in May 2008, it was reported that the Imperial Society had received an ownership certificate for a plot of land in Bethlehem (in the West Bank) from Palestinian President Abbas and would build a school there.
According to the New Testament, Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem.