Pending legislation on church land halted too

After Church of Holy Sepulchre shut, Jerusalem suspends church tax collections

Government sets up committee to resolve disputes that sparked angry protests by churches in the capital

People gather outside the closed doors of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City on February 25, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
People gather outside the closed doors of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City on February 25, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The Jerusalem municipality will suspend a controversial move to tax church-owned properties until a new government committee finds a solution to the issue, which has sparked angry protests from the churches, including the shuttering of Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Prime Minister’s Office said Tuesday.

The government will also suspend all pending legislation regarding church land until the committee examines the issue, the statement said.

“Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat have agreed to establish a professional team led by Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, with the participation of all relevant parties, to formulate a solution for the issue of municipal taxes on properties owned by churches that are not houses of worship,” the statement said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat (right) hold a press conference at the Mamilla Hotel in Jerusalem, February 23, 2015. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“The team will negotiate with the representatives of the churches to resolve the issue,” it said, adding that “as a result, the Jerusalem Municipality is suspending the collection actions it has taken in recent weeks.

“Israel is proud to be the only country in the Middle East where Christians and believers of all faiths have full freedom of religion and worship,” the statement said. “Israel is home to a flourishing Christian community and welcomes its Christian friends from all over the world.”

There was no immediate reaction from the churches, which on Sunday took the drastic step of indefinitely shutting one of Christianity’s holiest sites in protest.

A decades-long agreement between the churches and the state has prevented the Jerusalem municipality from collecting property tax from Christian institutions.

Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi at the Knesset on July 9, 2017 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

However, the city recently decided, citing a legal opinion, that the exemption for churches applies only to properties used “for prayer, for the teaching of religion or for needs arising from that.”

Barkat said the churches owed more than NIS 650 million ($186.3 million) on their commercial operations.

The announcement comes as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre remained closed for a third day in protest at the tax measures and a controversial proposed law.

Christian leaders closed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Sunday at noon in a rare move, locking out thousands of pilgrims and tourists seeking to visit what Catholic and Orthodox Christians see as the holiest site in Christianity.

The church is built where many Christians believe Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected. Custody of it is shared by the Greek Orthodox, Armenian and Roman Catholic denominations.

After the church was shuttered, lawmakers on Sunday postponed for a week a Knesset committee debate on a bill that would allow Israel to confiscate land sold by the churches to private developers in cases where homes had been built on the lands.

A protest poster at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre depicting the objects of the protest, MK Rachel Azaria (top left) and Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat (top right). (Mab-CTS)

The advancement of the legislation, initiated by Kulanu MK Rachel Azaria and backed by the Justice Ministry, is fiercely opposed by church leaders, who have decried what they see as attempts by Israel to limit their ability to buy and sell their only real assets — real estate.

Azaria says her bill seeks to protect hundreds of Israelis, largely in Jerusalem, whose homes are located on land that, until recently, was owned and leased to them by the churches, principally the Greek Orthodox Church — in most cases under 99-year contracts signed in the 1950s between the church and the state, via the Jewish National Fund.

The contracts state that when the leases run out, any buildings on them will revert back to the church. Residents expected that the leases would be extended. But in recent years, in order to erase massive debts, the Greek Orthodox Church has sold vast swaths of real estate to private investors, and nobody knows whether they will renew the leases, and if so, under what conditions.

Sue Surkes and AFP contributed to this report.

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