Church of the Holy Sepulchre stays shut for 3rd day in protest

Thousands of pilgrims locked out of Christian holy site as leaders battle municipality tax measures, Knesset bill

Pilgrims pray outside the closed gate of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City on February 27, 2018.(AFP PHOTO / Thomas COEX)
Pilgrims pray outside the closed gate of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City on February 27, 2018.(AFP PHOTO / Thomas COEX)

A church in Jerusalem believed by many to have been built at the site of Jesus’s burial remained closed for a third day Tuesday as Christian leaders protested against Israeli tax measures and a controversial proposed law.

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

The leaders announced that they were closing the venerated house of prayer until further notice to protest Jerusalem municipality efforts to charge churches back taxes on properties not used for worship, as well as draft Knesset legislation to confiscate church land sold to private developers.

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.

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.”

Responding to comments made by the Greek patriarch on Sunday about the city’s “scandalous collection notices” and “orders of seizure of Church assets, properties and bank accounts,” Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat said the taxes would only be collected on properties where the churches run businesses.

“The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, like other places of worship owned by all churches, are exempt from property tax — that is not changing and will continue,” he said.

But the churches owed more than NIS 650 million ($186.3 million) on commercial operations, he added.

In response to the closure of the Holy Sepulchre church, 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.

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