Christian Holy Site Shut Over Tax Dispute

One of Christianity’s holiest sites has been closed to pilgrims and visitors indefinitely. Leaders of the two largest Christian sects in Jerusalem say the Church of the Holy Sepulchre will remain closed until their demands are met. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, situated in Jerusalem’s Old City, is built on the site where many Christians believe Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected.

The move was made in protest of a couple of recent proposals made by Israeli authorities that would greatly affect the church and other religious institutions in the area. One of the proposals would see churches starting to pay taxes on buildings that serve as more than just places of worship. This would include church-affiliated schools or hotels. Jerusalem’s churches, synagogues, and mosques are exempt from municipal taxes.

A second proposed law would make it harder for church leaders to sell their land. There has also been a proposal in parliament that would allow the government to appropriate lands in Israel sold by churches to anonymous buyers since 2010. The legislation was put on hold amid the closure of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat said the previous laws created an imbalance that has unfairly favored the church and that the new taxation law is about correcting the issue. He added, “We will no longer require Jerusalem’s residents to bear or subsidize this huge debt.” Barkat claims that the churches owe roughly $186 million in back taxes.

Both Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic representatives said they were blindsided by the Jerusalem municipality’s recent decision to begin taxing them. They believe that the sudden taxes would jeopardize schools, health clinics and other vital services needed in their communities. Church officials also said they do not know how the city calculated their debts or decided which buildings to tax.

Church figures say the move breaks a historic agreement between civil authorities and churches within the Holy City of Jerusalem. Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III, flanked by the Catholic Church Custos of the Holy Land Francesco Patton and Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem Nourhan Manougian, made a statement to journalists in front of the church’s large wooden doors. He said, “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.”

Theophilos III continued on to say, “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.” Israeli lawmaker Rachel Azaria says she is working with the churches to end the crisis. Church officials expressed hope the matter would be resolved.

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