Churches urge Netanyahu to thwart bill restricting land sales

Armenian, Greek Orthodox and Catholic leaders accuse PM of failing to stick to commitment to withdraw legislation which they say aims to seize their property

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)

Three major Holy Land churches on Friday called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to block draft legislation they said was aimed at expropriating their property.

In a letter to Netanyahu, heads of the Armenian and Greek Orthodox churches in Jerusalem and a senior Roman Catholic official condemned the bill as “disgraceful.”

They said its inclusion on the agenda of a government committee meeting scheduled for Sunday reneged on previous commitments to withdraw the law.

Swathes of Jerusalem are held by various churches, in many cases under long-term leases from the state.

The churches then sublet the properties on the commercial market.

Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III delivers a statement to the press as he stands next to the Custodian of the Holy Land Fr. Francesco Patton and Armenian Bishop Siwan (L) on February 25, 2018, outside of the closed doors of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem’s Old City. (AFP/Gali Tibbon)

In February, Jerusalem municipality began enforcing tax collection on church property — excluding places of worship.

Separately, parliament was working on a law that would allow the state to intervene in the resale of leases to commercial property developers.

The church leaders in protest closed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site in Jerusalem where Jesus is believed to have been crucified and buried, following which Israeli authorities froze both the tax measures and the legislation, committing to a dialogue with the Christians over the issues.

In their letter Friday, the churchmen said Netanyahu himself had written to them in July giving “assurances to withdraw the legislation.”

In the July letter, Netanyahu told the church leaders that they would meet with MK Tzachi Hanegbi to discuss their concerns, adding that he is “proud of Israel’s flourishing Christian community.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem on October 14, 2018. (Ohad Zwigenberg/Yedioth Ahronoth/Pool/Flash90)

However, Friday’s letter expressed shock from the religious officials that the “scandalous” legislation appeared to be going ahead.

“We were astonished to realize that this disgraceful bill was listed on the agenda of the ministerial committee for legislation this coming Sunday,” it said.

“We are therefore compelled to call yet again for Your Excellency’s urgent intervention to stop this bill once and for all.”

The cabinet office listed the bill among several “added to the agenda” of Sunday’s meeting.

Listed as a bill for tenants’ rights, it aims to safeguard residents of properties assigned to “various bodies” on 99-year leases during the 1950s.

Kulanu MK Rachel Azaria attends a Kulanu faction meeting in the Knesset on May 7, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

MK Rachel Azaria, a lawmaker with the centrist coalition party Kulanu, renewed work on a revised version of the bill that does not explicitly mention churches, but would let the state expropriate the rights over lands sold by them, while offering compensation.

Residents living in homes on such lands fear the churches could sell the lands to private developers, who would be free to do as they wish with their property, including raising rents or razing existing structures.

Azaria said her bill did not single out churches, and was aimed at solving the problem of “thousands of Jerusalem residents who could lose their homes due to the demands of developers.”

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