The Church of the Holy Sepulcher, built on the site of Christ’s tomb, was closed on Sunday, February 25, 2018, as a sign of protest against the tax demands the municipality of Jerusalem wishes to apply to Church property.
Holy Land: Why the Christian Communities Closed the Holy Sepulcher
The Church of the Holy Sepulcher, site of Christ’s tomb, remained closed between Sunday evening, February 25, and Wednesday morning, February 28, 2018. The Christian communities meant to protest against the fiscal measures that the municipality of Jerusalem is trying to apply to church properties. More precisely, there are two reasons behind this closure: fiscal measures taken by the mayor of Jerusalem, and a proposed bill about the real estate of the Christian communities.
The fiscal measures impose taxes on several hundred parcels of real estate—not on places of worship—which produce revenue, such as the locations, the businesses and the hotels that accommodate pilgrims. Exemption from this tax called “arnona” goes back to the Ottoman Empire and had never been called into question until now. The Mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, announced in a press release that the city was counting on recovering back taxes in the amount of 650 million shekels (152 million Euros). The civil authorities reportedly have already started to claim their due: several hundred thousand dollars have been collected, and several bank accounts have been frozen, according to some Israeli media.
As for the draft legislation, it would allow the expropriation of properties belonging to the Christian communities, which would then be sold to private investors. Through this decision to close the Holy Sepulcher, the leaders of the Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian communities wished to alert international public opinion. In a press release published by the AFP, they state that if these measures were adopted, they would “make possible the expropriation of properties of the Churches”. They add that these measures of the State of Israel and of the municipality resemble an “attempt to weaken the Christian presence in Jerusalem”: “This reminds us of all the laws of the same nature that were applied to the Jews during the dark hours in Europe.”
Israeli Authorities Not Respecting Christianity
In an interview granted to Le Figaro on February 26, the Custos of the Holy Land, the Catholic guardian of the basilica that stands on the site of Calvary and of Christ’s tomb, had explained the position of the Christian communities and rebuked the Israeli authorities for not “respecting” the presence of Christians in the Holy Land. Brother Francesco Patton had also declared that the Christians “do not refuse on principle to pay taxes” but that “relations with the authorities are governed by a status quo that goes back to the Ottoman period and was respected by the British, the Jordanians and the State of Israel in turn.”
In particular the friar noted:
Our movement is not directed against the State of Israel, but it is time for its leaders to gauge the extent of our contribution to local life. In the Old City of Jerusalem alone, the Custody of the Holy Land makes more than 300 dwellings available to Christian families, most of whom do not have the means to pay rent. We fulfill a mission which would weigh upon the municipality if we were not there. This reality must be taken into account in reflecting on the taxation of churches.
It is to be hoped that this will be the case today and that the discussions with the government and the municipality of Jerusalem are successful.
Although no fundamental decision has been made yet, the government nonetheless decided on February 27, 2018, to suspend the collection of taxes and the study of a proposed bill about real estate. A team headed by the Minister of Communications, Tzachi Hanegbi, was tasked with engaging in discussions so as to find a solution to the difference of opinion that pits the State of Israel against the Christian communities. Although the announcement was a formality, nevertheless it was perceived as a sign of hope by the Christian communities, which decided to reopen the doors of the Church at dawn on February 28.
Staffed by the Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Armenian Apostolic communities, the site welcomes hundreds of thousands of pilgrims of various Christian denominations each year. It is rarely closed. In 1990 it had been closed with other Christian sites to protest against the installation of settlers near the shrine. Nine years later, some Christian sites had been closed once again to protest against the construction of a mosque near the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth.