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Christian leaders shut down Holy Sepulchre church to protest Israeli policy

A bill to expropriate church property and a plan to charge the church 650 million NIS in back taxes prompt protest from Christian leaders.

Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III arrives at the Church of the Nativity in the biblical West Bank town of Bethlehem as Orthodox Christmas celebrations kicked off on January 6, 2016, in the traditional birthplace of Jesus Christ. (Flash90)

Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III arrives at the Church of the Nativity in the biblical West Bank town of Bethlehem as Orthodox Christmas celebrations kicked off on January 6, 2016, in the traditional birthplace of Jesus Christ. (Flash90)

Christian leaders announced that the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, one of the holiest sites in all of Christianity, will be closed indefinitely to protest a Knesset bill that will allow the government to seize church land, as well as a plan to tax church property.

In a statement released Sunday, the heads of the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Armenian churches, the bodies responsible for governing the Holy Sepulcher and other Christian holy sites, denounced what they are calling “a systematic” and “offensive” campaign “against the Churches and Christian community in the Holy Land, in flagrant violation of the existing Status Quo.”

The Knesset bill will reportedly allow the government to expropriate property sold by the churches to private companies over the past decade. The government will compensate the private companies that purchased the land.

The story, however, is more complicated than the Church simply protesting Israeli policy. The bill was proposed following reports that the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem had sold off several million dollars-worth of property in Caesarea, Jaffa, and Jerusalem to companies that remain anonymous because they are registered in tax shelters — including to the settler group Ateret Cohanim, which is attempting to Judaize Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem.

The Church owns the property it recently sold, but in most cases had leased it to the Israel Land Authority or the Jewish National Fund (JNF), typically for 99 years, which then sold it to individual owners. When news of the Church’s deals surfaced, apartment owners reportedly began to panic, fearing that when the leases to the JNF or Land Authority expire in 30 years they will lose their property, which will transferred to the new, anonymous owners who purchased the property from the Church.

Palestinians have protested the Church’s sale of its property — at prices that critics say are far below the actual value — to unnamed companies and, in particular, to Ateret Cohanim. Hundreds of Palestinian citizens of Israel demonstrated against the Greek Patriarch Theosopholis III in Nazareth in September, following the final announcement of the Church’s sale of property in East Jerusalem to the settler group. When Patriarch Theosopholis III visited the city of Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank for a Christmas ceremony in January, Palestinian demonstrators blocked his car, threw stones, and yelled “traitor.”

Palestinian protesters clash with Palestinian police officers during a protest against Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III, as he arrives for a ceremony at the Church of the Nativity. January 6, 2018. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)

Palestinian protesters clash with Palestinian police officers during a protest against Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III, as he arrives for a ceremony at the Church of the Nativity. January 6, 2018. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)

Meanwhile, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat claims the churches owe 650 million NIS in unpaid municipal property taxes on property used for non-religious purposes. “It doesn’t make sense that commercial property like hotels, auditoriums, and businesses are exempt from paying municipal taxes just because they’re owned by churches,” Barkat tweeted on Sunday.

“This systematic and unprecedented attack against Christians in the Holy Land severely violates the most basic, ab antiquo and sovereign rights, trampling on the delicate fabric of relations between the Christian community and the authorities for decades,” said Theophilos III, Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church in Jerusalem, in an address Sunday afternoon. “As a measure of protest, we decided to take this unprecedented step of closure of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.”

PLO Executive Committee Member Dr. Hanan Ashrawi also denounced the Knesset bill and the Jerusalem municipality’s plan to tax church property, calling it a “very egregious and dangerous violation of the status quo that has governed the status of Christian churches in Palestine for centuries.”

“Such forms of legislation deliberately target the Churches, their communities, assets, and property as a way of maintaining exclusivity and Jewish control. This is part of the further escalation in Israel’s policies to isolate Jerusalem and ethnically cleanse its Palestinian population from the city,” said Ashrawi.

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    COMMENTS

    1. Itshak Gordin Halevy

      They have to pay taxes on their properties like every citozen.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        Not nearly that simple. Not by a long shot. But we duly note how your reply is further evidence, as if any more were needed, of what you mean by “Jewish sovereignty.”

        Church of Holy Sepulchre Crisis: Israel Burns Its Bridges With the Christian World
        Decision makers have continually ignored the political, religious and diplomatic sensitivities when trying to solve problems that concern Jerusalem’s Christian community
        Nir Hasson 26.02.2018
        “The law discriminates against the churches compared to other institutions or private citizens. (A relevant question is what Israel would say if such a move was taken in another country for synagogue-owned property.) Furthermore, it would be applied retroactively. The law would force the churches to pay for the failures of the Jewish National Fund and the Israel Lands Administration. To understand their missteps, one must look no further than the land deal in Jerusalem’s Rehavia neighborhood, which was developed in the first half of the 20th century…
        Anyone dealing with this law – including those who drafted it – knows very well that it has no chance of passing at the Knesset in its present form. It violates so many constitutional principles that it is a perfect case for being annulled by the Supreme Court. The law is intended to be a threat for real estate developers and speculators, so they reach a deal with the government. But in the meantime, the question is whether this is the way Israel wants to communicate with the Christian world.”
        read more: https://www.haaretz.com/middle-east-news/.premium-church-of-holy-sepulchre-crisis-israel-burns-its-bridges-with-the-christian-world-1.5848160?=&ts=_1519677142754

        Reply to Comment
    2. Dhmitriy

      we are against the closure of the churches

      Reply to Comment
    3. Homo politicus

      Kosovo Is Serbia !

      Reply to Comment