Historic Jerusalem church reopens after tax dispute

One of the most popular tourist sites in Israel was closed for three days in late February when Christian leaders felt the Israeli government was trying to drive Christians from the Holy Land.

Leaders of the Greek Orthodox, Catholic and Armenian churches in Jerusalem, the three denominations charged with management of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, announced Feb. 25 that the church would close its doors. The announcement was in protest of the city’s plans to tax church properties.

The Jerusalem Post reported that both Jordanian and Palestinian Christians claimed the new tax policy was an indication that Israel was “threatening the presence of Christians in the Holy Land.”

Church leaders reported that liens were placed on church accounts, causing interruptions to ministry activities. They said this was a “systematic campaign of abuse against churches and Christians” and said the measure “undermines the sacred character of Jerusalem and jeopardizes the Church’s ability to conduct its ministry in this land on behalf of its communities and the worldwide church.”

Frozen assets

A representative of the Greek Orthodox patriarchate told the Times of Israel, “All of our assets are frozen. We can’t pay for food, salaries, administration, nothing.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu got involved in the dispute between church and city leaders after it became clear that the country’s regional and global diplomatic position was in jeopardy, according to The Jerusalem Post.

In response, Netanyahu’s office issued a statement in support of Christians in Israel: “Israel is proud to be the only country in the Middle East where Christians and believers of all faiths have full freedom of religion and worship. Israel is home to a flourishing Christian community and welcomes its Christian friends from all over the world.”

Following the withdrawal of the tax order, church leaders praised Netanyahu and other leaders who had gotten involved in the conflict.

The leaders of the three denominations in charge of the site said in a statement, “We, the heads of Churches in charge of the Holy Sepulchre, and the status quo governing the various Christian holy sites in Jerusalem — the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, the Custodian of the Holy Land and the Armenian Patriarchate — give thanks to God for the statement released earlier today by Prime Minister Netanyahu and offer our gratitude to all those who have worked tirelessly to uphold the Christian presence in Jerusalem and to defend the status quo.”

Jerusalem is faced with budget shortfalls and mounting debts, according to the Post. The proposed tax collection would have continued to exempt houses of worship from taxation but all other church properties, including those used as offices and lodging, would have been subject to the tax. (TAB)