Jerusalem’s Holy Sepulchre Church closes in tax protest

Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre, revered as the site of Jesus’s crucifixion and burial, will reopen its doors after Israel backtracked on Tuesday from a tax plan and draft property legislation that triggered a three-day protest.

The heads of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, considered the holiest site in Christianity, have shuttered its doors to protest against a new tax and a piece of Israeli legislation that will allow the government to confiscate land sold by the church.

In the rare step not seen for close to three decades, church leaders accused Israel of a “systematic and unprecedented attack against Christians in the Holy Land”.

Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic and Catholic leaders, who jointly manage the vast site in Jerusalem’s Old City, complained of plans by the city’s municipality to modify a religious tax exemption that they said was “an attempt to weaken the Christian presence in Jerusalem”.

Separately, they complained of a “discriminatory and racist bill” being considered by Israeli legislators that would allow former church property to be claimed by the state.

“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,” the leaders said in a statement on Sunday. “This reminds us all of laws of a similar nature, which were enacted against the Jews during dark periods in Europe.”

Church leaders, in a joint statement, welcomed the dialogue.

“After the constructive intervention of the prime minister, the churches look forward to engage with Minister Hanegbi, and with all those who love Jerusalem to ensure that our holy city, where our Christian presence continues to face challenges, remains a place where the three monotheistic faiths (Judaism, Islam and Christianity) may live and thrive together.”

The Jerusalem Municipality, Netanyahu said, would suspend the tax collection actions it had taken in recent weeks.Mayor Nir Barkat has said the churches owed the city more than $180 million in property tax from their commercial holdings, adding that “houses of worship” would remain exempt.

Church leaders, in closing the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, said church-owned businesses, which include a hotel and office space in Jerusalem, had enjoyed a tax exemption.

While the review is under way, work on legislation that would allow Israel to expropriate land in Jerusalem that churches have sold to private real estate firms in recent years will also be suspended, Netanyahu said.

The declared aim of the bill, deemed “abhorrent” in a prior statement issued by church leaders, is to protect homeowners against the possibility that private companies will not extend their leases of land on which their houses or apartments stand.

The churches are major landowners in Jerusalem. They say such a law would make it harder for them to find buyers for church-owned land – sales that help to cover operating costs of their religious institutions.

A spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called on Israel to permanently cancel the proposed measures, which he said would “lead to escalating tension and to instability”.

A small minority of Palestinians are Christians, many of them in Bethlehem, the town in the Israeli-occupied West Bank – near Jerusalem – where Jesus is believed to have been born.

At the very place where many Christians believe Jesus Christ was crucified and then resurrected, now stands the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Shared by six denominations, it is a church riven by a confusing and complex series of spiritual battles, placing it at the very heart of the Middle East.

However, the church’s gatekeeper is not a Christian; members of a Muslim family have locked and unlocked the Holy Sepulchre’s front door every day for the last 800 years.

In this 2007 film, Al Jazeera explores the background to this unusual story and how it reflects the meeting of a wide range of people, despite their religious differences.

February 25, 2018: In a rare move, the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem has been indefinitely closed in protest against what church leaders say is “discriminatory” Israeli policy aimed at weakening Christian presence in the holy city.

Church leaders said Israel was violating the status quo at the site, which is one of the holiest in Christianity, at an “unprecedented level”.

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