Christian sects shut down famous Jerusalem church to protest taxes, proposed land bill

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Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, Theophilos III, speaks during a news conference with other church leaders in front of the closed doors of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City, February 25, 2018. (Reuters Photo/Amir Cohen)
Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, Theophilos III, speaks during a news conference with other church leaders in front of the closed doors of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City, February 25, 2018. (Reuters Photo/Amir Cohen)

The leaders of the major Christian sects in Jerusalem closed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built on the traditional site of Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection, for several hours on Sunday to protest an Israeli plan to tax their properties.

The Christian leaders responsible for the site issued a joint statement bemoaning what they called a "systematic campaign of abuse" against them, comparing it to anti-Jewish laws issued in Nazi Germany.

The Christians are angry about the Jerusalem municipality plans to tax their various assets around the city and a potential parliament bill to expropriate land sold by the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches. The churches, which are major landowners in the holy city, say it violates a long standing status quo.

The Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic and the Armenian Apostolic leaders said the moves seemed like an attempt to "weaken the Christian presence in Jerusalem."

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is a major place of worship in Jerusalem's Old City. Christians revere it as the site where Jesus was crucified and where his tomb is located, and its closing is highly unusual.

The Jerusalem municipality said it would continue to care for the needs of Jerusalem's Christians and maintain their full freedom of worship. It said the church, just like other sacred sites in the city, is exempt from municipal property taxes and that will not change.

"However, hotels, halls and businesses cannot be exempt from municipal taxes simply because they are owned by the churches. These are not houses of worship," it said in a statement. "We will no longer require Jerusalem's residents to bear the burden of these huge sums."

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat said on Twitter it was illogical to expect that church-owned commercial property, including hotels and retail businesses, would continue to enjoy tax-exempt status.

"Let me make it clear: we are not talking about houses of worship, which will still be exempt from property tax, according to law," he wrote.

Jerusalem is one of the country's poorest cities, and the tax revenue from the properties is estimated to be tens of millions of dollars.

Separately on Sunday, parliament is pursuing a bill that will appropriate lands in Israel sold by churches to anonymous buyers since 2010. The bill's sponsor said these questionable sales have plunged thousands of Jerusalem residents into uncertainty over their living conditions.

The churches, major landowners in the city, say such a law would make it harder for them to find buyers for their land.

"This abhorrent bill ... if approved, would make the expropriation of the lands of churches possible," said the statement by Theophilos III, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, Francesco Patton, the Custos of the Holy Land, and Nourhan Manougian, the Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem.

"This reminds us all of laws of a similar nature which were enacted against the Jews during dark periods in Europe," the church leaders said.

There are between 10,000 to 12,000 Christians living in East Jerusalem, out of 300,000-strong Palestinian population in the city.

East Jerusalem has drawn world attention since U.S. President Donald Trump on Dec. 6 officially recognized the holy city as the capital of Israel, triggering world outcry and protests across the Palestinian territories.

Jerusalem remains at the heart of the decades-long Palestinian-Israeli conflict, with Palestinians hoping that East Jerusalem -- now occupied by Israel -- might eventually serve as capital of an independent Palestinian state.

Israel occupied the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, during the 1967 Middle East war.

In a move never recognized by the international community, Israel annexed the entire city in 1980 claiming it as its "eternal and undivided" capital.

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