Tel Aviv, Israel
Holy Sepulchre, the sacred church in Jerusalem, was on Sunday shut after a dispute between Christian leaders in the holy land and Israeli authorities over the future of multiple church-owned properties and lands that Christians say should be protected by international law.
The move at the site that each day draws thousands to the place where Christians believe Jesus was crucified, buried and later resurrected comes after the Jerusalem municipality began collecting taxes on church properties in the city.
According to the municipality, the churches owe more than $185 million on certain properties used for commercial purposes.
The closure is a response to proposed legislation that could block the churches from making commercial deals with investors on land they leased long-term to the Israeli government nearly 70 years ago, The Washington Post reported.
In front of the church’s bolted wooden doors, the leaders of the Greek Orthodox, Catholic and Armenian churches in a media briefing said Israel was waging a “systematic campaign against the churches and the Christian community in the Holy Land, in flagrant violation of the existing status quo”.
“Recently, this systematic and offensive campaign has reached an unprecedented level as the Jerusalem municipality issued scandalous collection notices and orders of the seizure of Church assets, properties and the bank accounts for alleged debts of punitive municipal taxes,” the church leaders said.
The leaders said the step breached agreements and international obligations by Israel towards the church and it “seems as an attempt to weaken the Christian presence in Jerusalem”.
The closing of the church’s doors comes after US President Donald Trump decided to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to the holy city.
Local Muslims and Christians have said that such a move could upset the religious balance in Jerusalem, a city holy to all three religions.
Palestine has said the formal recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and transferring the embassy there makes it impossible for the US to be a fair broker in any future peace process between Ramallah and Tel Aviv.
Trump on December 6 lauded Israel for building a country “where Jews, Muslims, and Christians, and people of all faiths are free to live and worship according to their conscience and beliefs”.
The latest dispute between church leaders and Israeli lawmakers appears to be a litmus test for that.
The Israeli parliament on Sunday agreed to hold off discussing the legislation to “ease tensions with the church leaders and find a compromise”.
Palestine Liberation Organisation Secretary General Saeb Erekat, however, said the dispute showed the “dramatic reality of the Palestinian people in Jerusalem, and particularly of our churches.”
Most of the Christians in Jerusalem, Israel, and the West Bank are of Palestinian heritage.
“It’s time for Trump and his administration to realise the consequences of their encouragement for the Israeli policies of occupation and exclusivity in Jerusalem,” Erekat said.
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat said the new taxation policies would not affect the churches and would cover only properties belonging to church authorities that are used for commercial purposes.
“In Jerusalem, all are equal under the law – Christians, Muslims, and Jews alike. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre – as is the case for all of Jerusalem’s churches, synagogues, and mosques – is exempt from municipal taxes,” Barkat said in a statement, adding hotels and office spaces owned by various churches “are not exempt from municipal taxes, regardless of their ownership”.
Rachel Azaria, the Israeli lawmaker behind the legislation, said her bill was not designed to take away property belonging to religious institutions but focused on large tracts of land leased by church authorities to Israel after the state’s creation in 1948.
Several years ago, it was revealed that the land upon which hundreds of residential apartment blocks and national institutions sit was sold by the Greek Orthodox Church in million-dollar commercial deals to private developers. If approved by parliament, the law will confiscate the lands sold by the church in private deals and prevent similar transactions in the future.
“This is not about religion; this is about money,” said Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, a member of the Jerusalem City Council, who helped draft the legislation. “The church is trying to profit in the millions on the backs of thousands of Jerusalem residents who might lose their homes.”
Greek Orthodox Church leaders in Jerusalem also have been at odds with their own followers, who have accused Patriarch Theophilos III of selling off church property without their consent.
Theophilos in an earlier interview had said that he had no choice but to sell or lease land held by the church to finance its day-to-day business in Israel and the Palestinian territories as well as in Jordan and Qatar – all areas under his jurisdiction.