The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem’s Old City, seen by many as the holiest site in Christianity, reopened on Wednesday after a three-day closure to protest against Israeli tax measures and a proposed law.
The two men who act as keepers of the key of the church opened its large wooden doors at around 4:00 a.m., ending the protest that began on Sunday at noon.
Shortly afterwards, a group of pilgrims arrived to visit the sacred site.
The church is built where Christians believe Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected. Custody of it is shared by the Greek Orthodox, Armenian and Roman Catholic denominations.
The closure — which seemed to be the longest since at least 1990 — had left thousands of pilgrims and tourists seeking to visit locked outside.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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 contributed to this report.