Mideast Christian leaders shut Church of Holy Sepulcher to protest taxes

IMAGE: CNS photo/Debbie Hill

By Judith Sudilovsky

JERUSALEM (CNS) — Protesting several recent
actions they described as a “systematic campaign … against the churches
and the Christian community in the Holy Land,” the heads of Christian churches
announced Feb. 25 they were closing of the doors of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher
for an undisclosed period of time.

Bewildered pilgrims milled around the square
in front of the church as Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III — flanked by
Franciscan Father Francesco Patton, custos of the Holy Land, and Armenian
Patriarch Nourhan Manougian — read a short statement to the press. At the same time, the only two people allowed to close the doors — the Muslim custodian of
the key, Adeeb Jawad Joudeh Al Husseini, and Muslim door keeper Wajeeh Nuseibeh — closed and
locked the doors.

“This systematic and unprecedented
attack against Christians in the Holy Land severely violates the most basic …
and sovereign rights, trampling on the delicate fabric of relations between the
Christian community and the authorities for decades,” the heads of churches
said in their statement.

The church leaders were protesting the
Jerusalem municipality’s intention to impose property taxes on church property, such as hotels and convention centers, not
used for worship purposes. The proposal to levy taxes on some properties would
run contrary to the unofficial historical tax-exempt status the churches have
enjoyed for centuries.

In addition, the church leaders said they oppose a bill in
the Israeli parliament that would limit the ability to sell church-owned land
to private owners. The bill, whose vote was postponed following the church
protest, would be specifically detrimental to the Greek Orthodox Church, which
owns large tracts of land in central Jerusalem upon which many private homes
are built; many of those 99-year-old building rental contracts will soon expire.
The church already has sold some of the land to private owners, and homeowners
whose apartments are on the land worry about losing their homes.

Rachel Azaria, the member of Parliament who
sponsored the bill, said it is not meant to affect what the church can do with
its property, but what happens when the land rights are sold to a third party.

As media gathered to hear
the church leaders, pilgrims wandered around the church square, some kneeling
in front of the massive wooden doors — the closest they would come to entering
the church.

“We had one
shot,” said Flavia Falcone, 25, an Italian Catholic living in Poland, who
had come to Israel for four days. “This was a bad decision. Faith and
politics are two different things. I came here all this way to see the church
and I find it closed. It is not very pleasant.”

It is only the second time the doors to the
Church of the Holy Sepulcher have been closed in the middle of the day, other
than for traditional religious ceremonies. The other time was 20 years ago,
when a visitor to the church began taking down crosses and candles, said

The church leaders said taxing commercial properties decreases revenues for the
church’s good works and breaches
“existing agreements and international obligations which guarantee the
rights and the privileges of the churches, in what seems as 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,” they said.

In early February, the
Jerusalem municipality announced it would begin collecting $186.4 million in
property taxes from some 887 church-owned properties that were not houses of

Patriarch Theophilos has traveled to meet world leaders, including Pope Francis, on the
legislative issue.

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat
went on social media in response to the Feb. 25 protest, clarifying that there
was no intention to tax places of worship, but rather church businesses such as
hotels and conference halls.

“Commercial buildings
are not exempt from municipal taxes regardless of their ownership,” he
said. He noted that, by not taxing commercial properties owned by churches,
Jerusalem residents were missing out on revenue.

“We will no longer
require Jerusalem’s residents to bear or subsidize this huge debt,” he said
in a tweet, assuring that — like all churches, synagogues and mosques — the
Church of the Holy Sepulcher was exempt from municipal taxes.

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Follow Sudilovsky on
Twitter: @jsudireports.

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