Offering prayers at the closed doors of the Church of the Holy Sepluchre (AP photo)

Israel Suspends Plan to Tax Jerusalem Church Properties

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By Nebi Qena

JERUSALEM (AP) — Jerusalem’s mayor on Tuesday, February 27, suspended a plan to impose taxes on properties owned by Christian churches, backing away from a move that had enraged religious leaders and led to the closure of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

In a statement, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said a professional team was being established to negotiate with church officials to “formulate a solution.”

“As a result, the Jerusalem Municipality is suspending the collection actions it has taken in recent weeks,” it said.

There was no immediate reaction from church leaders, and it was unclear whether the Church of the Holy Sepulchre would reopen.

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Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and leaders of other Christian denominations closed the famed church on Sunday to protest an order by Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat to begin taxing their properties.

The church is revered as the site where Jesus was crucified and resurrected, and the decision closed one of Jerusalem’s most visited holy sites just ahead of the busy  Easter season.

Barkat said his decision affected only commercial properties, such as hotels, restaurants and offices, and not houses of worship. He said other cities followed similar practices worldwide.

“As the mayor of the city of Jerusalem, my goal and role is to make sure people pay their taxes,” he said in an interview earlier Tuesday. “We have no negative or bad intentions here.”

The churches accused Barkat of acting in bad faith and undermining a longstanding status quo. They say their non-church properties still serve religious purposes by providing services to pilgrims and local flocks.

In Tuesday’s announcement, Netanyahu said Cabinet Minister Tzachi Hanegbi would head the new negotiating committee, which will include representatives from the city, and the finance, foreign and interior ministries.

“The team will negotiate with the representatives of the churches to resolve the issue,” it said.

In addition to suspending tax collection, Netanyahu’s office said that proposed legislation governing the sale of church lands in Jerusalem was also being suspended.

Cardinal Edwin O’Brien, Grand Master of the Order of the Holy Sepluchre of Jerusalem, called the recent proposals “alarming.”

“Betraying international treaties and centuries of practice, all Christian properties, except churches themselves, are being taxed tens of billions of dollars. This includes hundreds of agencies, including Christian schools, hospitals, homes for the needy, health care facilities, and pilgrimage centers such as the Notre Dame Center in Jerusalem,” he said.

“Many church assets are being frozen, fines threatened, and hundreds of thousands of dollars seized from Christian churches in an effort that will severely curtail Christian freedom of practice.”

The cardinal called for prayer in the wake of these “unprecedented discrimination against Christians.”

A statement released by Christian leaders on Sunday said the proposals “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 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,” the statement said.

(The Catholic News Agency contributed to this report.)

 

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