Israel backs down from tax battle with Christians in Old Jerusalem


This past Sunday, the doors of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the heart of Old Jerusalem were barred, in protest against an Jerusalem municipality demand for back taxes from Christian churches, and proposed legislation that would allow the Israeli government retroactively to expropriate land and property sold by the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches since 2010.

In their statement Sunday, the Patriarchs and Heads of the Churches having charge over the Holy Sepulchre wrote,

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.

[Read the whole statement here.]

On Monday, the Dean of St George’s Anglican College in Jerusalem wrote,

Yesterday, Sunday February 25, the Heads of the Churches of Jerusalem closed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. For the first time in decades, in an act of solidarity the doors were locked at noon in protest to recent actions initiated by the Mayor of Jerusalem by which various church accounts have been frozen, millions of dollars in property taxes levied against 887 church and UN properties, and a bill brought before the Knesset that is said to open the way for permissible church property expropriation. All of which is being felt as a sudden precipitous threat to the Christian presence and ministry in this land as not seen in the 70 years of this State.

Last night it was my privilege to be invited by Archbishop Suheil Dawani to a dinner hosted at our Cathedral Close which welcomed Theophilos III, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch who presided earlier that day over the closing of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It was a stirring evening as he and our Archbishop spoke in strident terms of the challenge they, and the churches of Jerusalem, are facing in this moment. The Christian community in this city stretches back across 20 centuries of worship, ministry and service in the name of Jesus Christ, and no one can say where this will lead. …

I should tell you that one of the two accounts of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem that was frozen by the Israeli government earlier this month was one of our smaller College accounts. The College is able to function and pay our staff. Courses are thriving.

 [Read the Dean’s whole statement here.]

Dean LeSueur also pointed to media commentary drawing a line from Donald Trump’s announcement last fall recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the government’s moves to “annex large swathes of the city and force its laws on it.”

Presiding Bishop of the ELCA, Elizabeth Eaton, issued a statement yesterday in support of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land, writing,

Today, I join our partner church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land (ELCJHL), in expressing solidarity with the churches in Jerusalem to defend their properties and protect the Christian presence in the Holy Land. A few weeks ago, based on a new legal opinion, Jerusalem began collecting property taxes from churches despite an agreement with Israel to exempt them (as they had also been when the city was previously under Jordanian, British and Ottoman control). While the city’s action can be seen partially as a financial dispute with the central government, it is noteworthy that this tax collection is taking place alongside a proposal in the Knesset to confiscate church-owned land. The net effect has been to attempt to undermine the historic status quo in Jerusalem and mount increased pressure on the Christian community and its ministries in the Holy Land.

In response to these moves, the churches in charge of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – the Armenian Apostolic (Orthodox) Church, the Greek Orthodox Church and the Catholic Custody of the Holy Land – on Feb. 25 closed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem in protest. Today, the ELCJHL, in conjunction with the German Lutheran Church, decided to close Church of the Redeemer and its tower for one day in solidarity.

[Read the Presiding Bishop’s whole statement here.]

The Jerusalem Post sees the Christian pushback as an attempt to use legitimate tax legislation to paint Israel in a poor light.

David Rosen, the Jerusalem-based international director of interreligious affairs of the American Jewish Committee, said that the timing of the decision to close the church “couldn’t have been worse,” from the point of view of Israel and Jerusalem’s image.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu often speaks of the hospitable climate for Christians in Jerusalem and Israel, contrasting that with the much bleaker fate awaiting Christians in other parts of the region.

“I’m proud that Israel is a country in which Christians not only survive, but they thrive,” he said last Christmas in a taped message to the Christian world.

Rosen is currently in Vienna participating in an interreligious dialogue sponsored by the Saudis, Austrians, Spaniards and the Vatican. Among the participants is Jerusalem Grand Mufti Muhammad Ahmad Hussein.

Rosen said that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre issue “is the only thing he [Hussein] is talking about, to show how awful Israel is.”

According to Rosen, the issue “looks very bad, I’m afraid, and it is very easy for hostile elements to make negative propaganda out of it.”

However, the churches’ pressure seems to have worked. Within the past hour, Haaretz has reported that the Israeli and Jerusalem city governments seem to be backing away from making aggressive tax demands.

Israel opted on Tuesday to take steps to resolve its ongoing crisis with church leaders and the Christian community that led to their indefinite shuttering of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Sunday. The Israeli government will freeze a controversial bill that recently spurred the crisis, while the Jerusalem municipality will postpone the collection of taxes from church-owned properties.

It is not yet clear when the Church of the Holy Sepulchre will reopen.

Read more at the Guardian, the Jerusalem Post, and Haaretz.

Image: Patriarch Theophilos III reads the joint statement as the doors to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre are closed. Via

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