Churches protest over back taxes as Jerusalem mayor ‘follows the law’

The city of Jerusalem has begun charging municipal tax on church property not designated as places of prayer; Holy Sepulchre closes in protest.

By Steve Leibowitz, World Israel News

Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre remained closed for a second straight day to protest the city’s decision to collect taxes on Church property that is not a specifically designated house of prayer.

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which is exempt from paying city taxes, is one of the most famous and popular tourist sites in the country, and its closure is unprecedented.

A few weeks ago the municipality notified the Prime Minister’s Office that it will start charging a total of NIS 650 million in taxes from 887 church properties on which there are no houses of prayer. Church leaders called the decision a “systematic campaign of abuse against churches and Christians. They issued a statement reading, “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 Custody of the Holy Land and the Armenian Patriarchate – are following with great concern the systematic campaign against the churches and the Christian community in the Holy Land, in flagrant violation of the existing status quo.”

The statement continued: “Recently, this systematic and offensive campaign has reached an unprecedented level as the Jerusalem municipality issued scandalous collection notices and orders of seizure of Church assets, properties and bank accounts for alleged debts of punitive municipal taxes – a step that is contrary to the historic position of the churches within the Holy City of Jerusalem and their relationship with the civil authorities. These actions breach existing agreements and international obligations which guarantee the rights and the privileges of the churches, in what seems as an attempt to weaken the Christian presence in Jerusalem.”

The city rejects the claims. Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat made it clear that there has been no change in the police of property exemptions for churches and prayer houses. “It makes no sense to exempt commercial areas that house hotels and stores that happen to be owned by a church. For too many years the state did not allow the municipality to collect these debts on these commercial properties. Jerusalem residents should not be forced to close this debt,” he explained.

Former Deputy Mayor and Hebrew University Law Professor Shimon Shetreet told World Israel News (WIN), “There is a difference between worship facilities and commercial facilities owned by the church. Many years ago there was a similar issue with yeshivot (Jewish educational institutions focusing on Torah and Talmud) that have wedding halls. There was also the case of the Bar Association with a party hall. Places of prayer are not taxed. Places of parties are subject to taxation. There are also stores owned by churches and synagogues that pay tax. Why not? Nobody is charging houses of prayer, so these protests are totally misleading.”

International legal expert Alan Baker from the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs told WIN, “The church must pay property tax on their hotels, residence hostels and stores just like everybody else. The city and the government have turned a blind eye until now but they have every right to charge for the services they provide, and that includes services for church owned property.”