Church of Holy Sepulchre to reopen after city suspends church tax collections

Christian leaders hail ‘constructive intervention’ by prime minister; reports say Israel faced heavy pressure from the Vatican, Russia, Greece, and Evangelical Christian groups

Protestors demonstrate outside the closed doors of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City on February 27, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Protestors demonstrate outside the closed doors of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City on February 27, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre will reopen on Wednesday, church leaders announced, after Israel suspended a plan to tax church properties in Jerusalem.

The site, one of the holiest in Christianity, had been shut for three days by the churches, in order to protest the taxation move by the Jerusalem municipality as well as pending Israeli legislation that would affect the ability of the churches to sell their land.

Tuesday’s decision to call off the protest came after the Prime Minister’s office announced earlier in the day that it was suspending the tax collection and freezing the legislation until a newly formed committee — to be headed by Regional Cooperation  Minister Tzachi Hanegbi —  could work out the issues with the churches.

“After the constructive intervention of the Prime Minister, The Churches look forward to engage with Minister Hanegbi, and with all those who love Jerusalem, to ensure that Our Holy City, where our Christian presence continues to face challenges, remains a place where the three Monotheistic faiths may live and thrive together,” the church leaders said in a statement.

The Greek Orthodox Patriarch (center, with white beard), flanked by other church leaders, announces that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is to be locked until further notice, in protest over a Knesset bill to limit the churches’ ability to sell land and Jerusalem Municipality moves to freeze church assets until they pay disputed city back taxes. (Mab-CTS)

The church will reopen at 4:00 AM on Wednesday, it said.

In addition to the Jerusalem Municipality suspending the tax collection actions it has taken in recent weeks, the government will also suspend all pending legislation regarding church land until the committee examines the issue, the Prime Minister’s Office announced, saying that the committee would work “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 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.

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)

“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 from the Prime Minister’s office said. “Israel is home to a flourishing Christian community and welcomes its Christian friends from all over the world.”

Hadashot news said that Netanyahu had decided to intervene in the situation after Israel came under heavy pressure from the Vatican, Orthodox countries like Russia and Greece, and from Evangelical Christian groups who are staunch supporters of Israel.

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.

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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