Palestinians slam Jerusalem move to end tax breaks on churches, UN properties
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Palestinians slam Jerusalem move to end tax breaks on churches, UN properties

Greek Orthodox Patriarchate says municipality trying to 'empty' city of Christian institutions; PA spokesman calls decision 'a new aggression against our occupied capital'

Khaled Abu Toameh is the Palestinian Affairs correspondent for The Times of Israel

Illustrative: A view over Gethsemane and the Church of Mary Magdalene in Jerusalem (Sebi Berens/Flash90)
Illustrative: A view over Gethsemane and the Church of Mary Magdalene in Jerusalem (Sebi Berens/Flash90)

Palestinians on Sunday strongly denounced an Israeli decision to collect taxes from churches and United Nations agencies in Jerusalem, saying the move was aimed at “emptying” the city of its Arab residents and Christian holy sites.

Some Palestinian officials even went as far as linking the decision to US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

“This is a new aggression against our occupied capital, Jerusalem,” said Yusef Al-Mahmoud, spokesperson for the Palestinian Authority government in Ramallah. “The decision is designed to further strangulate our people [in Jerusalem] to fulfill the occupation authorities’ illusions of displacing them.”

The Jerusalem municipality has handed out fines totaling millions of dollars to properties owned by the UN and by churches, citing a new legal opinion that says the properties are not legally defined as places of worship and therefore aren’t entitled to exemptions from the property tax.

The municipality said on Sunday that it has started collecting over NIS 650 million ($188 million) from some 887 properties in Jerusalem belonging to various churches and UN agencies.

The Dormition church on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. (photo credit: Anna Kaplan/Flash90)

The PA spokesperson accused Israel of working towards “consolidating the occupation and settlement inside Jerusalem.”

He claimed that there were no laws in the world, “other than the law of the occupation,” that permitted collecting taxes from places of worship.

Ahmed Majdalani, a member of the PLO Executive Committee, called on the churches and UN agencies to reject the decision to impose taxes on their properties.

“The occupation government is declaring an open war on the city of Jerusalem, the capital of the state of Palestine,” Majdalani charged.

The decision was a “completion” of Trump’s announcement recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, he said.

In December address from the White House, Trump defied worldwide warnings and insisted that after repeated failures to achieve peace a new approach was long overdue, describing his decision to recognize Jerusalem as the seat of Israel’s government as merely based on reality.

US President Donald Trump holds up a signed memorandum recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, as US Vice President looks on, at the White House, on December 6, 2017. (AFP Photo/Saul Loeb)

The move was hailed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and by leaders across much of the Israeli political spectrum. Trump stressed that he was not specifying the boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in the city, and called for no change in the status quo at the city’s holy sites.

“All the decisions and measures taken by the occupation government in Jerusalem are null and void and the international community should assume its responsibilities, implement the resolutions of international legitimacy and preserve the status quo in the city,” Majdalani said.

“The churches and Islamic and Christian holy sites are a red line. We are not going to pay money to the occupation. There will be no peace without Jerusalem; there will be no state without Jerusalem. We need to take a number of measures that will strengthen the status of Jerusalem in the Palestinian political system,” the senior PLO official added.

Palestinian Archbishop Atallah Hanna of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Jerusalem also denounced the Jerusalem Municipality’s decision.

Israel, he maintained, does not have the right to interfere in the affairs of the churches.

Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III (C) leads the Palm Sunday Easter procession at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem’s Old City on April 9, 2017. (AFP Photo/Gali Tibbon)

Atallah too claimed that the move was designed to “empty” Jerusalem of Christian institutions.

He said that Jerusalem was currently being targeted by a “big conspiracy.”

“The churches have been in Jerusalem before Israel was established and they have always been exempt from paying taxes, including under Jordan and the British Mandate,” Atallah said.

“Now the occupation authorities are seeking to change this reality in a bid to expand their control on Jerusalem and weaken and marginalize the presence of Christians in particular and Arabs and Muslims in general, in the city. We will not surrender to these suspicious and unjust decisions. We will not collaborate with this Israeli decision and we will not succumb to Israeli pressure and blackmail,” he added.

Hanna Issa, secretary general of the Islamic-Christian Commission for Support of Jerusalem and Holy Sites, said the Jerusalem municipality’s “hellish” decision was aimed at “solidifying” Israeli sovereignty on the ground following Trump’s announcement on Jerusalem. “This tax war is a religious war,” he charged.

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