The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City of Jerusalem was closed Monday for the second day in a row, with church officials saying they’re “not sure” when the ancient house of Christian worship will reopen.
Believed to be built upon the site of the crucifixion burial and resurrection of Jesus, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is among the holiest in Christianity.
But officials took the rare step of closing the church doors during the height of tourist season in order to pressure the State of Israel into cancelling property taxes and a recently-proposed new property law.
Israeli government ministers postponed a Knesset debate on the bill that would have allowed the state to expropriate lands sold by churches to private investors since 2010.
The bill is intended to protect Israelis – most of them in Jerusalem – who are living in homes located on those lands. Many of them were leased in 99-year contracts to the Jewish National Fund and when those run out, the buildings revert back to the church, which owns a mammoth amount of land and real estate. But the Greek Orthodox Church recently began selling off assets to settle its massive debts and it’s not at all clear what will happen to the homeowners – or their homes – who are located on those lands.
The legislation was angrily opposed by church leaders, as was a recent decision by the city of Jerusalem to freeze the assets of the churches until they pay millions of shekels in unpaid tax bills – which the churches contend are not legitimate. At issue is the question of whether tax exemptions for houses of worship should extend to properties not directly used for worship, such as schools, residences and other land.
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat tweeted earlier this week that it wasn’t fair for a business on a church property not to have to pay taxes, and for Jerusalem residents to foot the bill.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, he said, is exempt from municipal taxes, just like other churches, synagogues and mosques. “There is absolutely no change in this regard,” he tweeted.
Commercial buildings are not exempt from municipal taxes (arnona), regardless of their ownership. Debts on the commercial areas owned by the churches is in excess of 650 million NIS.
We will no longer require Jerusalem's residents to bear or subsidize this huge debt.
— Mayor Nir Barkat (@NirBarkat) February 25, 2018