Holy Sepulchre reopens to pilgrims after dispute

28 February 2018

REUTERS

A man kneels in front of the locked doors of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in Jerusalem, on Sunday

A man kneels in front of the locked doors of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in Jerusalem, on Sunday

THE intervention of the Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, is being celebrated as a victory by church leaders in Jerusalem, after they shut the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Sunday in protest at a “systematic campaign of abuse against Churches and Christians”.

The fourth-century church, regarded by many Christians as the holiest site in the world, was reopened on Wednesday, after the two actions that prompted the protest — taxes, and a Bill, both concerned with church-owned land and properties — were suspended.

The original 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).

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).

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,” a letter signed by 13 church leaders said this month. “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.”

On Tuesday, Mr Netanyahu and the Mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, announced that the Municipality would suspend the collection of the taxes, and would establish a team to negotiate with church representatives to “formulate a solution”. All legislative activity regarding the sale of Churches’ land was also suspended.

In a response, the three church leaders thanked God and “all those who have worked tirelessly to uphold the Christian presence in Jerusalem and to defend the status quo”. The Churches looked forward to working 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 may live and thrive together”.

The Municipality, which faces budget deficits, is in 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,” Mr 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 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, Patriarch Theophilos conducted an international tour on which he met politicians and church leaders, in an attempt to raise the alarm about the Bill of Church Lands and various court cases. “If we do not act soon,” he said, “it will be too late. And the outcome will be catastrophic” (News, 10 November). 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.

REUTERSThe Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, Theophilos III, at a news conference with other church leaders in front of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

‘Hold us in your prayers’

Patriarch Theophilos reflects on the latest development

WE GIVE thanks to God for the statement released by Prime Minister Netanyahu regarding the Jerusalem Churches — and the hard work of which it is a result. The Churches look forward to working with Minister Hanegbi and all those who love Jerusalem to ensure that Our Holy City remains a place where Jews, Christians and Muslims may live and thrive together.

Threats to the continued Christian presence in the Holy Land persist. We remain concerned at how close some of the political leaders in Israel came to enabling democratic institutions to be co-opted into a campaign of discrimination against Christians. This is particularly alarming in a context where radical settler groups daily engage in intimidation, bribery, vandalism and assault in their campaign to “redeem” Jerusalem of non-Jews.

Our work is not done.

Nevertheless, the announcement is a constructive development and highlights both the power of prayer and the presence of moderate voices within Israeli politics. We pray that this will be a turning point in the treatment of Christians in Jerusalem. We welcome the intervention of the Prime Minister and encourage the Members of the Knesset to promote the unique role that Churches play in the life of this multicultural, multi-ethnic and multi-religious Holy City.

The Holy Sepulchre is the site of the crucifixion of Our Lord but it is also the site of the Resurrection. Today we celebrate again the hope of the Resurrection and rejoice that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre can once more be open to pilgrims.

We thank HM King Abdulla II of Jordan the Custodian of holy sites, and we thank all those who joined their prayers to those of heaven in interceding for a resolution to this crisis. We ask that you would continue to hold Us in your prayers as We work with our fellow Christians, other faith communities and politicians to seek the peace of Jerusalem. And as We re-open the Church of the Holy Sepulchre We know that We will face further challenges in the future but in the Spirit of the Resurrection We remain ever hopeful.

I remain confident of this:
I will see the goodness of the Lord
in the land of the living.
Wait for the Lord;
be strong and take heart
and wait for the Lord.

Ps27.13-14

28 February 2018

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