The patriarchs and heads of all the main churches in Jerusalem are planning to boycott their traditional annual meeting with the mayor and senior municipal staff Thursday evening in protest against a bill of millions of shekels in back taxes that they say they should not be charged.
The gathering of the various church denominations usually takes place at the start of the new year, but this year, City Hall delayed the get-together, citing budget problems.
On Wednesday, 13 patriarchs and church leaders issued a joint statement condemning the taxation move as “contrary to the historic position between the Churches within the Holy City of Jerusalem and the civil authorities across the centuries” and something that “both undermines the sacred character of Jerusalem, and jeopardizes the Church’s ability to conduct its ministry in this land on behalf of its communities and the world-wide church.”
It concluded, “We stand firm and united in our position to defend our presence and properties.”
A decades-long agreement between the churches and the state has prevented the municipality from collecting property tax from Christian institutions.
However, the city recently decided, citing the legal opinion of Gabriel Hallevy, whom it described as an international law expert, that the exemption for churches applies only to properties used “for prayer, for the teaching of religion or for needs arising from that.”
Earlier this month, AFP quoted from a letter sent by the municipality’s director general, Amnon Merhav, to the offices of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as the finance, foreign and interior ministries, which said that debts on 887 church properties stood at NIS 657,180,520 (over $190 million), without specifying the time frame that the debts covered.
This week, official demands for payment began to go out to the churches.
On Tuesday, lawyers for the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate received a notice signed by a lawyer for the municipality that said that a lien had been placed on the church’s assets due to an unpaid debt of NIS 30.6 million ($8.7 million). Attached was a form on which the lawyers are requested to detail church assets and to which they are invited to attach a check.
“All of our assets are frozen,” a highly placed source within the patriarchate told The Times of Israel. “We can’t pay for food, salaries, administration, nothing.
“This is the first official notification we have received. Before that, we just heard about the city’s plans through the media.”
The churches appear to be pawns in an escalating dispute between the municipality and the Finance Ministry over funds for the capital. Mayor Nir Barkat has been conducting a high-profile campaign against Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon that has included instructing workers to dump trash at the entrance to the ministry offices in Jerusalem and threatening to lay off more than 2,000 city employees.
Jerusalem enjoys an annual “capital grant” from the ministry that helps offset the low tax revenue it suffers from due to the large percentage of its population that is largely not part of the taxpaying workforce, including roughly a third made up of ultra-Orthodox Jews and another third of Palestinian Arabs.
In 2016, the grant came to some NIS 500 million, and in 2017 to NIS 700 million. Barkat has argued that the city’s unique challenges — such as its ethnic divide and the large percentage of its land area taken up by government institutions — merit a larger grant from the national government.
A statement from the municipality issued earlier this month said, “The state played a game at the expense of the residents of Jerusalem and illegally exempted the churches and the United Nations from paying property taxes in parts that are not places of worship without legal basis. The financial damage caused over the years to Jerusalem due to the state’s stance is almost NIS 1 billion.”