Ministers on Sunday postponed a Knesset debate on a bill that would allow Israel to confiscate church properties, after Orthodox and Catholic church leaders shuttered Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre to protest the legislation and a new municipal tax policy.
The Constitution, Law and Justice Committee was to discuss on Sunday — and in all probability advance — the bill, which would allow the state to expropriate lands sold by the churches to private investors since 2010.
The advancement of the legislation, which was proposed by Kulanu MK Rachel Azaria and is backed by the Justice Ministry, is being fiercely opposed by church leaders, who have decried what they called a “systematic campaign” by Israel to harm the Christian community in the Holy Land.
Church leaders were also protesting a recent decision by the Jerusalem municipality to freeze churches’ assets until they cough up millions of shekels in what the city claims are unpaid taxes.
Just before noon on Sunday, flanked by Franciscan Custos of the Holy Land Francesco Patton and Armenian Patriarch Nourhan Manougian, Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilus III read out a statement and then locked the ancient doors of the church in Jerusalem’s Old City.
“We will decide when and how the church will re-open,” Theophilus said, decrying the “systemic” discrimination faced by the Christian community in Israel.
Delivering his statements in front of the locked church, Theophilus likened Israeli policies concerning religious minorities to persecution suffered by European Jews.
“This reminds us all of laws of a similar nature which were enacted against the Jews during dark periods in Europe,” he said.
Believed by Orthodox and Catholics to be the place where Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is considered to be among the holiest places of worship for many Christians.
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.
Indicating that the main role of the bill is to get the new landowners to the negotiating table, Azaria said, “I hope that the buyers will come around and that we will succeed in arriving at a solution through negotiation and agreement. If that doesn’t happen, the law will transfer the rights to the land to the State of Israel.”
But the churches consider the bill an assault on their rights to buy and sell their one and only resource — investment properties.
Sunday’s protest also comes amid other moves by Israel that the churches consider to be an all-out assault on long-running agreements to preserve the general status quo.
These include an Israeli court’s August upholding of what the Greek Orthodox Church claims was a fraudulent deal carried out in its name to lease key properties in the Old City’s Christian Quarter to the right-wing Ateret Cohanim organization.
Fighting on a third front, local churches are also protesting being charged millions of shekels in back taxes they say are illegitimate.
That dispute revolves around whether tax exemptions for the churches extend to properties, such as schools and residences, that are not used directly for worship.
Lawyers for the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate received a notice signed by a lawyer for the municipality that said a lien had been placed on the church’s assets due to an unpaid debt of NIS 30.6 million ($8.7 million). The debt was not explained. Attached was a form on which the lawyers were requested to detail church assets and to which they were invited to attach a check.
On Sunday, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat defended efforts to force the churches to pay millions in back taxes to the city. He said that it wasn’t fair that businesses on church property have traditionally been exempt from paying taxes.
“Why should the Mamila Hotel pay taxes and the Notre Dame Hotel, which is just opposite it, be exempt?” he posted on Twitter.
“I’m not prepared for Jerusalem’s residents to have to shoulder these huge sums,” he added, noting that the churches owed some NIS 650 million to the city.