-- For the second day in a row, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City remains shuttered in a tax standoff with the city's municipality and in protest of a proposed land expropriation law.
In a rare move Sunday, the leaders of the major Christian sects, the Greek Orthodox patriarch, the Armenian patriarch and the Catholic custodian of the Holy Land, cleared the site of tourists, and met at the giant wooden front door of Christianity's holiest site. Famously in conflict over the church, the three leaders had the door locked and issued a joint statement, accusing Jerusalem's mayor, Nir Barkat, of violating the status quo in moves that seemed like an attempt to "weaken the Christian presence in Jerusalem."
The leaders spoke in front of reporters and dozens of Christian pilgrims who were now locked out of the holy site where so many believe Jesus was crucified, buried and then resurrected.
The unusual closure was prompted by two developments: the Jerusalem municipality's plan to tax the church's assets around the city, of which there are many, and a possible parliament bill to expropriate land already sold by the churches to private companies. The church leaders say it violates a longstanding status quo.
"The systematic campaign ... reaches now its peak as a discriminatory and racist bill that targets solely the properties of the Christian community in the Holy Land is being promoted," the statement said. "This reminds us all of laws of a similar nature which were enacted against the Jews during dark periods in Europe."
On Sunday, the church leaders displayed large signs outside featuring Mayor Barkat, who has been leading the charge to change the tax exemption status, and Knesset member Rachel Azaria, who introduced the bill that would effectively allow Israel to expropriate land in Jerusalem sold by the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches since 2010. "Enough is Enough, Stop the Persecution of the Church," read the signs.
For his part, Barkat replied on Twitter, saying that the church itself will still be exempt, but it's the church-owned commercial property that will need to pay up. The municipality said it planned to collect some $186 million in back taxes owed by the churches and international bodies with property in the city.
According to the church leaders the exemption agreement was honored during the Ottoman Empire, and consistently by British, Jordanian and Israeli governments.
Today, for the first time in decades, hundreds of disappointed Christians pilgrims were left to pray in the courtyard outside the church.
The church leaders met again Monday afternoon and decided the church will remain closed until further notice.
Nasser Atta reported from Jerusalem, Molly Hunter from London.