A BILL that would give the Israeli government the right to confiscate church land was reminiscent of laws enacted against the Jews in Nazi Germany, Christian leaders in the Holy Land said this weekend. They announced the closure of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in protest at a “systematic campaign of abuse against Churches and Christians”.
A statement issued on Sunday was signed by the Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III of Jerusalem; the Catholic Custos of the Holy Land, Fr Francesco Patton, a Franciscan priest who holds responsibility for guardianships of the holy places on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church; and the Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem, Patriarch Nourhan Manougian. It said that the campaign had reached its peak in the Bill of Church Lands, a “discriminatory and racist bill”, which is before the Knesset (News, 10 November)
Announcing the closure of the fourth-century Holy Sepulchre, regarded by many Christians as the holiest site in the world, they condemned a “systematic and unprecedented attack against Christians in the Holy Land” which “severely violates the most basic, ab antiquo and sovereign rights, trampling on the delicate fabric of relations between the Christian community and the authorities for decades”.
The Bill, brought by Rachel Azaria of the Kulanu party, would enable the Israeli government to confiscate lands leased by churches and assign them to third parties. She argues that it is designed to protect residents who live on land sold by churches to private developers. Sunday’s statement points out that it targets only the properties of the Christian community. “This reminds us all of laws of a similar nature which were enacted against the Jews during dark periods in Europe,” it says.
The leaders also draw attention to “scandalous collection notices and orders of seizure of Church assets, properties and bank accounts for alleged debts of punitive municipal taxes”.
This year, the Jerusalem Municipality announced that it would start collecting property tax from church-owned properties. Places of worship are excluded, but hotels and businesses owned by Churches are included, as well as residences for the community, such as those within monasteries, community centres, schools, and clinics.
The Municipality is also demanding that Churches pay these taxes retroactively and has calculated them on assets and properties, as well as their bank accounts. In total, it has levied £132 million from 887 properties, including some owned by the UN. The Jerusalem and the Middle East Church Association reports that the Anglican Church is facing demands for £1.44 million, and that two of its bank accounts have been frozen (News, 23 February).
In an open letter published earlier this month, the leaders of 13 churches, including the Anglican Archbishop in Jerusalem, the Most Revd Suheil Dawani, argued that this contravenes the historic understanding between the Churches and the civil authorities. The status quo in Jerusalem, which dates from the 18th century, includes an understanding that land owned by the Churches cannot be confiscated or taxed.
“The civil authorities have always recognized and respected the great contribution of the Christian churches, which invest billions in building schools, hospitals, and homes, many for the elderly and disadvantaged, in the Holy Land,” the letter says. “Such a measure both 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 world-wide Church.”
In Sunday’s statement, the three leaders warn that the move appears to be “an attempt to weaken the Christian presence in Jerusalem”, and that “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.”
In a statement to the Jerusalem Post this month, the Jerusalem Municipality said that it had “excellent and respectful connections with every church in the city, and it will continue protecting their freedom of religion. However, it cannot accept the situation in which hotels and business are exempted from paying property tax only because the property is owned by a church.” It argues that a new legal opinion proves that Church-owned properties are liable for tax.
The Municipality, which faces budget deficits, is locked into a dispute with the Israeli Finance Ministry over funds for the capital. The Times of Israel has reported that the city has a low tax revenue because a large percentage of residents do not work, including ultra-Orthodox Jews and Palestinian Arabs.
“It is absurd for Jerusalem residents to fund municipal services for the churches and the UN on their own, and for the municipality to be prevented from collecting enormous sums that could significantly improve the city’s development and services,” the Mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, said this month. “If the state wishes the current situation to continue, we demand that it fully compensate us for those sums.”
Sunday’s statement is the latest in a series of expressions of distress calls from church leaders in the region. In September, Archbishop Dawani was one of 13 church leaders who warned of a “a systematic attempt to undermine the integrity of the Holy City of Jerusalem and the Holy Land, and to weaken the Christian presence” (News, 22 September).
In November, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III conducted an international tour of politicians and church leaders, in an attempt to raise the alarm about the Bill of Church Lands and various court cases. He warned: “If we do not act soon, it will be too late. And the outcome will be catastrophic” (News, 10 November 2017). The Archbishop of Canterbury was among those who issued statements of support, calling on “all parties to uphold the Status Quo and resist weakening it”.
In 1990, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was among the churches that were closed for 24 hours in protest against the occupation of St John’s Hospice by Jewish settlers.
A press release that accompanied the statement on Sunday said that Christians in Jerusalem faced “an escalating campaign of intimidation from radical settler groups. Churches face daily desecration and vandalism and Christians are regularly subjected to violent assault as they travel to pray. These groups have long used intimidation, bribery and extreme anti-social behaviour in an attempt to force Christians and other non-Jews out of the Holy City. While their actions clearly contravene Israeli law their crimes go largely unchecked.”