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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Arafat Returns Site to Patriarch

JERICHO, West Bank -- Palestinian police have forcibly removed members of an exiled branch of the Russian Orthodox Church from a Jericho monastic compound and handed it over to the Moscow Patriarchate, officials said.

Two nuns, one of them the sister of a former U.S. presidential adviser, remain holed up there, refusing to leave.

Officials from the small Russian Orthodox Church Abroad accused the Palestinians of illegally taking the Russian Jericho Garden to placate the more powerful Russian church.

"It's all politics,'' Superior Abbess Moses of Jerusalem's Russian Convent said Sunday, noting the Palestinians had been tightening ties with Russia recently.

The takeover began Saturday, officials of the exile church said, when Palestinian police stormed the church and dragged out four nuns and monks. Palestinian officials formally handed ownership of the compound to Patriarch Alexy II, head of the Moscow Patriarchate.

However, Sister Maria, a U.S. citizen and sister of former presidential aide George Stephanopoulos, returned to the compound and refused to leave. She was later joined by another American nun.

It was the second time the Palestinian Authority has handed over church property to the Russian church since the Palestinians gained control of parts of the West Bank.

Jibril Rajoub, the Palestinian security chief in the West Bank, said the Moscow Patriarchate had deeds proving the compound belonged to it.

"We received an official request from Patriarch of Moscow Alexy II claiming the property, along with the documents,'' Rajoub said. Alexy made the request to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat on Jan. 6, when Russian clerics and former President Boris Yeltsin visited Bethlehem for Orthodox Christmas.

Hieromonk John Smelic said the documents that the Moscow Patriarchate presented were false and that he has asked the U.S. State Department to help retrieve the property.

The origins of the dispute date back to the 1920s, when a group of bishops outside Russia split with the Moscow-based patriarchate over its support for the militantly atheist Soviet government.

The exiled church controlled Russian shrines in the Holy Land until 1948, when the newly created state of Israel recognized the Moscow Patriarchate's claim as a gesture of gratitude to the Soviet Union for diplomatic recognition.

Church property in east Jerusalem and the West Bank remained under exile control through Jordanian and later Israeli rule. In 1997, however, at the request of Alexy, Palestinian police expelled exile church clerics from Hebron's Monastery of Abraham's Oak and installed Moscow Patriarchate representatives.