Print Version    Email to Friend
Church of Holy Sepulchre closed to protest taxes

JERUSALEM (CNS): “This systematic and unprecedented attack against Christians in the Holy Land severely violates the most basic … and sovereign rights, trampling on the delicate fabric of relations between the Christian community and the authorities for decades,” the heads of Christian Churches in the Holy Land said in a statement on February 25 as they closed the of the doors of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for an undisclosed period of time.
Bewildered visitors milled around the square in front of the church as Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III—flanked by Franciscan Father Francesco Patton, custos of the Holy Land, and Armenian Patriarch Nourhan Manougian—read the short statement to the press. 
At the same time, the only two people allowed to close the doors—the Muslim custodian of the key, Adeeb Jawad Joudeh Al Husseini, and Muslim door keeper Wajeeh Nuseibeh—closed and locked the doors.
They were protesting the Jerusalem municipality’s intention to impose property taxes on church property, such as hotels and convention centres, not used for worship purposes. 
The proposal to levy taxes on some properties would run contrary to the unofficial historical tax-exempt status the Churches have enjoyed for centuries.
In early February, the municipality announced it would begin collecting $1.45 billion (US$186.4 million) in property taxes from some 887 Church-owned properties that were not houses of prayer.
Jerusalem mayor, Nir Barkat, went on social media in response to the protest, clarifying that there was no intention to tax places of worship, but rather Church businesses such as hotels and conference halls.
“Commercial buildings are not exempt from municipal taxes regardless of their ownership,” he insisted, noting that, by not taxing commercial properties owned by Churches, Jerusalem residents were missing out on revenue.
“We will no longer require Jerusalem’s residents to bear or subsidise this huge debt,” Barkat said in a tweet, assuring that—like all churches, synagogues and mosques—the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was exempt from municipal taxes.
Church leaders said taxing commercial properties decreases revenues for the Church’s good works and breaches “existing agreements and international obligations which guarantee the rights and the privileges of the Churches, in what seems an attempt to weaken the Christian presence in Jerusalem.”
They said, “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.” 
In addition, the Church leaders said they oppose a bill in the Israeli Knesset (parliament) that would limit the ability to sell Church-owned land to private owners. 
This would be specifically detrimental to the Greek Orthodox Church, which owns large tracts of land in central Jerusalem upon which many private homes are built and many of those 99-year-old building rental contracts will soon expire. 
The Church already has sold some of the land to private owners and homeowners whose apartments are on the land are worried about losing their homes. The vote on the bill was postponed following the protest.
Rachel Azaria, the member of Knesset who sponsored the bill, said it is not meant to affect what the Church can do with its property, but what happens when the land rights are sold to a third party.
Flavia Falcone, an Italian living in Poland, who had come to Israel for four days lamented, “We had one shot. This was a bad decision. Faith and politics are two different things. I came here all this way to see the church and I find it closed. It is not very pleasant.”
It is only the second time the doors to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre have been closed in the middle of the day, other than for traditional religious ceremonies. The other time was 20 years ago, when a visitor began taking down crosses and candles, Nuseibeh said.
Patriarch Theophilos has travelled to meet world leaders, including Pope Francis, on the legislative issue.

More from this section