Stepping up protest against Israel, fuming church leaders shutter Holy Sepulchre

Christian holy site in Jerusalem closes down over Knesset bill restricting sales of church land and Jerusalem move to charge millions of shekels in disputed back taxes

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Sunday closed its doors until further notice as church leaders angrily retaliated against what they see as a “systematic campaign” by Israel to harm the Christian community in the Holy Land.

Flanked by Franciscan Custos of the Holy Land Francesco Patton and Armenian Patriarch Nourhan Manougian, Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilus lll read out a statement and then locked the ancient doors of the church in Jerusalem’s Old City.

“We will decide when and how the church will re-open,” he said, likening Israeli policies to anti-Semitic laws enacted against Jews in Europe.

Believed to be the site where Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected, the church localed in Jerusalem’s Old City is considered to be the holiest site for Orthodox and Catholic Christians. It was last closed briefly around 20 years ago in protest against Israeli policies.

The immediate trigger was the churches’ discovery that the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee was to discuss — and in all probability pass — a bill on Sunday allowing the state to confiscate land sold by the churches to private investors since 2010 and pay the new owners compensation.

It was also motivated by a recent decision by the Jerusalem Municipality to freeze churches’ assets until they cough up millions of shekels in what the city claims are unpaid taxes.

“We, the heads of churches in charge of the Holy Sepulchre and the status quo governing the various Christian holy sites in Jerusalem… are following with great concern the systematic campaign against the churches and the Christian community in the Holy Land, in flagrant violation of the existing status quo,” the patriarch said.

“Recently, this systematic and offensive campaign has reached an unprecedented level as the Jerusalem Municipality [has] issued scandalous collection notices and orders of seizure of Church assets, properties and bank accounts for alleged debts of punitive municipal taxes.

“These actions breach existing agreements and international obligations which guarantee the rights and the privileges of the churches, in what seems an attempt to weaken the Christian presence in Jerusalem. The greatest victims in this are those impoverished families who will go without food and housing, as well as the children who will be unable to attend school.”

Kulanu MK Rachel Azaria takes part in Knesset Finance Committee meeting on November 6, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The patriarch then lashed out at what he called the “discriminatory and racist” bill that would confiscate former church land, sponsored by Rachel Azaria (Kulanu) whose spokesperson said it was supported by a majority of 61 lawmakers from across the political spectrum. The bill, which also has the backing of the foreign and justice ministries, was expected to be green-lighted on Sunday afternoon to go on to a preliminary reading in the Knesset plenum.

“This abhorrent bill is set to advance today in a meeting of a ministerial committee which, if approved, would make the expropriation of the lands of churches possible.

“This reminds us all of laws of a similar nature which were enacted against the Jews during dark periods in Europe.”

Azaria says she is seeking to protect hundreds of largely Jerusalem residents whose homes are located on land which, 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 1950’s 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.

Indicating that the main role of the bill is to get the new landowners to the negotiating table, Azaria said, “I hope that the buyers will come around and that we will succeed in arriving at a solution through negotiation and agreement. If that doesn’t happen, the law will transfer the rights to the land to the State of Israel.”

The residential buildings in question are located on church-owned land sold in the Jerusalem neighborhoods of Givat Oranim (now owned by David Sofer, a Jewish Israeli businessman living in London and an American billionaire, Michael Steinhardt, through Oranim Ltd.); Abu Tor (where Sofer owns half a street, together with another Jewish Englishman, through a company called Kronty Investments Ltd); and in Talbieh, Rehavia, and Nayot (where Jerusalemite Noam Ben David has bought up real estate, together with an Australian and an American now living in Israel, via Nayot Komemiyut Investments).

David Sofer (C) pictured with wife Cindy (L) at the opening reception of the Jewish Museum in London on March 16, 2010. (Desmond O’Neill Features Ltd)

For the churches, the bill constitutes an assault on their rights to buy and sell their one and only resource — investment properties.

Over recent months, the Greek Orthodox patriarch, Theophilus lll, with the backing of all the Holy Land churches, has traveled almost nonstop to seek the international community’s opposition to the move.

He has met with the pope, Russian President Vladimir Putin, the king of Jordan, the archbishop of Canterbury, and senior political figures in Greece and Cyprus.

The church’s protest also comes against a backdrop of other moves that the churches see as part of an all-out assault on long-running agreements to preserve the general status quo.

The Imperial Hotel at the Jaffa Gate, the lease to which was sold to the right-wing Ateret Cohanim organization and is the subject of an appeal by the Greek Orthodox Patriarch. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

These include an Israeli court’s August upholding of what the Greek Orthodox Church claims was a fraudulent deal carried out in its name to lease key properties in the Old City’s Christian Quarter to the right-wing Ateret Cohanim organization.

During the patriarch’s meetings, he also asked for intervention with Israel over the East Jerusalem lease deal – a deal so explosive that it led to the sacking of his predecessor. Palestinians see East Jerusalem as their capital should they reach any future peace agreement with Israel.

Fighting on a third front, the patriarchs and heads of all the main churches in Jerusalem boycotted their traditional annual meeting with the mayor and senior municipal staff 10 days ago to protest against bills of millions of shekels in back taxes that they say they should not be charged.

That dispute revolves around whether tax exemptions for the churches extend to properties, such as schools and residences, which are not used directly for worship.

Lawyers for the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate received a notice signed by a lawyer for the municipality that said a lien had been placed on the church’s assets due to an unpaid debt of NIS 30.6 million ($8.7 million). The debt was not explained. Attached was a form on which the lawyers were requested to detail church assets and to which they were invited to attach a check.

Greek Orthodox Christians call for the ouster of their patriarch, Theophilus lll, for selling church land to Jews, during the patriarch’s visit to the central city of Lod, November 16, 2017. The main banner says, “Not worthy.” (Courtesy)

Over recent months, a group called the Central Orthodox Council, which furthers an Arab nationalist agenda within the Greek Orthodox Church, has seized not only on the Old City deals but on all the church’s sales, throughout Israel, claiming that their church has sold off the family silver to Jews and alleging that the patriarch is corrupt.

A protest in support of Theophilus, took place a week ago.

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