‘Attack against Christians’: Jerusalem church closes to protest Israeli tax, land policies
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, where Jesus is believed to have been crucified and buried, shut down indefinitely on Sunday in protest against a new Israeli tax policy and draft law on land expropriation.
The leaders of Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Armenian churches announced the closure of the holy site in a joint statement, accusing Israel of a “systematic and unprecedented attack against Christians in the Holy Land.”
A bill which would allow the authorities to expropriate land that was sold to private firms by churches in Jerusalem since 2010 was to be considered by the Israeli government on Sunday. The Jerusalem city authorities have also recently cancelled tax exemptions granted to church-owned commercial properties and are now demanding back payments.
“The Jerusalem municipality issued scandalous collection notices and orders of seizure of Church assets, properties and bank accounts for alleged debts of punitive municipal taxes,” Theophilos III, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, Francesco Patton, the Custos of the Holy Land, and Nourhan Manougian, the Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem, said.
The Christian church leaders argued that the Israeli actions “breach existing agreements and international obligations which guarantee the rights and the privileges of the Churches, in what seems as an attempt to weaken the Christian presence in Jerusalem... “The greatest victims in this are those impoverished families who will go without food and housing, as well as the children who will be unable to attend school.”
The top clerics blasted the proposed Israeli legislation as “abhorrent… discriminatory and racist,” saying that “this reminds us all of laws of a similar nature, which were enacted against the Jews during dark periods in Europe.” As for the future of the holy site, “we will decide when and how the church will re-open,” they added.
Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat said the pressure on the Christians by the Jewish state “should be a reminder of the need to end the Israeli occupation,” Al Jazeera reported. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is located in East Jerusalem, which was captured by Israel in 1967 and has remained under its control since then.
Prayer houses in the city are exempt from paying property taxes and “it will be this way,” Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat said in response to the closure of the church. “But does it make any sense to that commercial area which has hotels and shops would be exempt from paying arnona (property tax) just because they are owned by a church? For too many years the state did not allow the municipality to collect these debts of these commercial areas… I would not allow that the residents of Jerusalem would close this debt,” Barkat said as cited by the Jerusalem Post.
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Knesset member Rachel Azaria, who proposed the expropriation bill, said that “the low prices at which entire neighborhoods were sold show that it was a speculative deal. In this situation, the patriarchate is irrelevant, because its land sold to private builders.”
However, Azaria criticized the Jerusalem mayor for his tax crackdown on churches, blaming Barkat of “creating a crisis instead of solving it… creating an unnecessary diplomatic crisis.”
The closure of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre has taken effect as the Israeli Ministerial Committee for Legislation, which was to decide on Azaria’s bill, opted to postpone Sunday’s vote in order to calm tensions, the Jerusalem Post reported.