The Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian church leaders in Jerusalem on Sunday announced the closure of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher until further notice, in protest against a pending Knesset legislation allowing the state to expropriate land that the churches have sold to Jewish real estate companies since 2010.
At a press conference in the Old City the church leaders warned that the bill that is being discussed Sunday by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation is a violation of their rights.
In recent years, the churches have sold to private companies land that had been leased in the middle of the 20th century for 99 years to the Jewish National Fund and to other entities. As a result, many residents who live in these areas—which include some of Jerusalem’s most prestigious neighborhoods, such as Talbiya (Komemiut), Rehavia, and Nayot—may be required to pay large sums of money in order to extend their lease, or to return the land and their homes to the churches.
The bill explains that there are thousands of families in Jerusalem who stand to lose their homes (and the borrowing power they represent) without government intervention.
According to the bill, any land that meets the criteria and was sold to private entrepreneurs after January 1, 2010, will be transferred to state ownership, the rights of the entrepreneurs will be revoked, and their rights in the Land Registry will be erased – in return for compensation from the State according to a calculation to be determined by the Minister of Finance with the approval of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee.
Theophilos III, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, Francesco Patton, the Custos of the Holy Land, and Nourhan Manougian, the Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem, issued a statement declaring that “this abhorrent bill … if approved, would make the expropriation of the lands of churches possible.”
Not really. The new law would simply make sure the churches aren’t facing individual homeowners when the time comes for renewing the 99-year option on their lease, but instead they’d be doing business with the state, which is out to protect the same homeowners.
The church leaders are also protesting the fact that the Jerusalem municipality no longer exempts their commercial ventures (as opposed to their religious services) from real estate taxes. Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat tweted in response: “Let me make it clear: we are not talking about houses of worship, who will still be exempt from property tax, according to law.”