Protesting a demand for back taxes, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City of Jerusalem closed on Sunday.
A triumvirate of Christian denominations in Jerusalem closed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre Sunday to protest a demand by the Knesset for retroactive payment of delinquent taxes as well as City Hall’s plan to seize church properties and bank accounts in lieu of payment.
The Greek and Armenian Patriarchates, together with the representative of the Franciscan order within the Roman Catholic Church, said the move would be a “flagrant violation of the existing status quo” that was reminiscent of anti-Jewish laws passed “during dark periods in Europe.” They claimed that the main victims of the seizures would be poor people in and around Jerusalem that rely on the churches for food assistance and education.
“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… 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 systematic campaign of abuse against Churches and Christians reaches now its peak as a discriminatory and racist bill that targets solely the properties of the Christian community in the Holy Land,” the statement said.
The bill, tabled by MK Rachel Azaria (Kulanu) and currently under consideration by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, calls for the confiscation of church-owned lands in the Rechavia, Talbiya and Nayot sections of Jerusalem that have been used for residences as well as lands that have been sold to private entrepreneurs. Sixty-one Members of Knesset have signed on to the measure.
Barkat: Church owes ‘a staggering NIS 650 million’
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat noted in a statement that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, like all churches, is exempt from city taxes and that nothing in the current proposal stands to alter that situation. “But does it sound logical to anyone that commercial areas like hotels, wedding halls and businesses should share this exemption, just because they are owned by the churches? Why should the Mamilla Hotel pay municipal tax while the Notre Dame Hotel across the street is exempt? I’m sorry to say that for too many years, the state has blocked the municipality from collecting these taxes for commercial areas, which have reached a staggering NIS 650 million! It’s illegal and illogical.
“Either the state has to give us back these funds, which are meant to develop the city, or we will continue collecting them from the churches, as the law requires. We will not agree to have Jerusalem residents cover the bill for these inordinate sums,” Barkat said.