The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, Christianity’s holiest site, was closed to visitors on Sunday in an unprecedented move to protest proposed Israeli tax and land policies governing church-owned property.
The heads of the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Armenian Apostolic churches in the city released a letter accusing Israel of a “systematic and offensive campaign” against Christians. The Jerusalem municipality plans to tax some church assets for a first time, and cabinet ministers are studying a bill to expropriate land in Jerusalem that churches sold in recent years to anonymous buyers.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Christian tradition holds that Jesus was crucified and buried, stands in Jerusalem’s Old City, captured by Israel during the 1967 Middle East war. The church leaders accused Israel of trying to “weaken the Christian presence in Jerusalem.”
The proposed taxes will not apply to houses of worship, but to other properties the churches own. The Jerusalem municipality said while it will continue to tend to the needs of Jerusalem’s Christians and safeguard their full freedom of worship, church properties such as “hotels, halls and businesses cannot be exempt from municipal taxes simply because they are owned by the churches.”
UPDATE: The full statement from the heads of the churches…
We, the heads of Churches in charge of the Holy Sepulcher and the Status Quo governing the various Christian Holy Sites in Jerusalem – the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, the Custody of the Holy Land and the Armenian Patriarchate – 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.
Recently, this systematic and offensive campaign has reached an unprecedented level as the Jerusalem municipality issued scandalous collection notices and orders of seizure of Church assets, properties and bank accounts for alleged debts of punitive municipal taxes. A step that is contrary to the historic position of the Churches within the Holy City of Jerusalem and their relationship with the civil authorities. These actions breach existing agreements and international obligations which guarantee the rights and the privileges of the Churches, in what seems as 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.
The systematic campaign of abuse against Churches and Christians reaches now its peak as a discriminatory and racist bill that targets solely the properties of the Christian community in the Holy Land is being promoted. 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.
This systematic and unprecedented attack against Christians in the Holy Land severely violates the most basic, ab antiquo and sovereign rights, trampling on the delicate fabric of relations between the Christian community and the authorities for decades.
THEREFORE, and recalling the Statement of the Patriarchs and Heads of Local Churches in Jerusalem, dated 14 February, 2018 and their previous statement of September 2017, as a measure of protest, we decided to take this unprecedented step of closure of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Together with all Heads of Churches in the Holy Land we stand united, firm and resolute in protecting our rights and our properties.
May the Holy Spirit answer our prayers and bring a resolution to this historic Crisis in our Holy City.
THEOPHILOS III FRANCESCO PATTON NOURHAN MANOUGIAN
Patriarch of Jerusalem Custos of the Holy Land Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem