Holy Sepulchre church closed amid dispute to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital - WSJ

13:48 • 27.02.18



By Rory Jones

Christian leaders are barred access to one of Jerusalem’s holiest sites in a dispute with Israeli authorities that underscores lingering tensions over a US decision to recognize the city as Israel’s capital.


Clergymen made the rare decision on Sunday to close the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, believed to mark the burial site of Jesus, to protest city taxes and a proposed Israeli parliamentary bill to confiscate land sold by church authorities. They said the church would be closed until further notice.


The dispute between the largely Palestinian Christian community and Israeli authorities represents the latest flashpoint in a struggle over sovereignty in Jerusalem after President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize the city as Israel’s capital.


Palestinian officials were deeply frustrated by the December decision as they want the eastern part of Jerusalem, where the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is located, to be the capital of a future Palestinian state.


The international community and religious leaders, including Pope Francis, also criticized the White House move, arguing it prejudged Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.


Hanan Ashrawi, a senior member of the Palestine Liberation Organization, labeled the attempts to collect taxes on some church-owned properties and advance a new property law as a fresh attempt by Israel to maintain “Jewish control” over Jerusalem and its holy sites.


“These churches have existed long before the state of Israel, and Palestinian Christians represent the oldest Christian tradition in the world,” Ms. Ashrawi said on Sunday.


The Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic and Roman Catholic denominations, which share custody of the church, released a statement saying, “This systematic and unprecedented attack against Christians in the Holy Land severely violates the most basic…sovereign rights.”


Nearly two million Christians visit Israel annually and almost all of those visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, according to the Israeli tourism ministry.


Christian leaders shut the doors of the church ahead of plans by Israeli lawmakers to advance a bill on Sunday that would allow the state to expropriate lands sold by the churches to private investors. Israeli politicians later postponed a discussion on the bill for a week following the move by church leaders.


Lawmaker Rachel Azaria proposed the bill after the Greek Orthodox Church in recent years sold swaths of land in Jerusalem and other Israeli cities to private investors.


Church authorities had previously leased the land to the state and lawmakers fear that private investors would increase real-estate prices for Israelis, a spokesman for Ms. Azaria said. The bill doesn’t involve Christian leaders as it applies only to land already sold, he said.


Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat on Sunday said the city is due 650 million shekels ($186 million) in uncollected taxes on church-owned properties. He added that taxes don’t apply to holy sites, only to hotels, offices and other commercial space owned by church authorities.


The latest dispute is part of a long-running struggle over taxes and property rights between Israeli authorities and Christian churches with ancient roots in the country.


The Vatican and Israel, which established diplomatic relations in 1993, have been negotiating a comprehensive agreement on the Catholic Church’s tax status in Israel since 1999. The main issue has been tax exemptions, not only for houses of worship but also for properties such as monasteries and hospitals.


 

 

 

 





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