As the Church of the Holy Sepulchre remained closed for a second day amid a dispute with the Jerusalem municipality over canceled tax exemptions, the Hamas terror organization called Monday for an escalation of the “al-Quds Intifada” against what it called Israel’s “religious war on the Palestinians and their Islamic and Christian holy sites.”
On Sunday, church 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.
Fawzi Barhoum, a spokesman for Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, said in a statement that the quarrel between the churches and Israeli authorities illustrated the “dangerous repercussions of US President Donald Trump’s decisions and the policies of his administration,” adding that these “target the Palestinian existence and the Palestinian rights, as well as reinforce the racist and extremist Jewish state.”
In December, Trump announced that the US embassy would move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Last week, Washington announced the move would take place in May.
On Sunday, the Palestinian Authority also linked the Church of the Holy Sepulchre’s closure to the US plan to move its Israeli embassy.
“It’s time for President Trump and his administration to realize the consequences of their encouragement for the Israeli policies of occupation and exclusivity in Jerusalem,” Palestine Liberation Organization head Saeb Erekat said after the churches’ decision was announced.
“The dramatic reality of the Palestinian people in Jerusalem, and particularly of our churches, should be a reminder of the need to end the Israeli occupation,” Erekat was quoted as saying on the Twitter page of the PLO’s negotiations department.
On Sunday, a Jordanian government spokesman, Mohammad Momani, said that the kingdom rejected the “systematic” measures by Israeli authorities to alter the status quo in Jerusalem, and urged Israel “to immediately reverse the decisions taken against churches and to respect its obligations as an occupying power in East Jerusalem in accordance with international law.”
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 the legal opinion of someone 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.”
Responding to the Greek patriarch’s comments 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 church runs 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.
Commercial buildings are not exempt from municipal taxes (arnona), regardless of their ownership. Debts on the commercial areas owned by the churches is in excess of 650 million NIS.
We will no longer require Jerusalem's residents to bear or subsidize this huge debt.
— Mayor Nir Barkat (@NirBarkat) February 25, 2018
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 have 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.