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."
In protest of Israel’s systematic campaign of abuse against Churches and Christians in the Holy Land, the Heads of Churches decided “to take this unprecedented step of closure of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.” #Jerusalem #Palestine ???? pic.twitter.com/0igS0P1o0E— Palestine PLO-NAD (@nadplo) February 25, 2018
Breaking- Statement by the heads of Churches in charge of the Holy Sepulchre and the Status Quo. They just concluded their press briefing at the entrance of the Church in #Jerusalem #Palestine pic.twitter.com/RQGKgpVaX2— Palestine PLO-NAD (@nadplo) February 25, 2018
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.
.— Nasser Atta (@nasseratta5) February 26, 2018
Christian priests and Nuns at the roof of the church of the Holy Sepulchre , watching pilgrims praying out side the church. Head of churches closed the church to protest Israeli authority intention to imposes taxes on church’s and its properties #Jerusalem #Israel #Palestine pic.twitter.com/BzYWIobbJE
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.
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
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.
Heads of Christian churches decided to close the church of the Holy Sepulcher in #Jerusalem to— Nasser Atta (@nasseratta5) February 25, 2018
Protest #Israeli authority decision to impose taxes on Christian church’s and its properties in the holy land . This is the first time the church closed in Sunday in tens of years pic.twitter.com/KPqsv8SD7p
Christian Pilgrims praying out side the church of the Holy Sepulchre , as the Heads of Christian churches decided to close the church of the Holy Sepulcher in #Jerusalem to— Nasser Atta (@nasseratta5) February 25, 2018
Protest #Israeli authority decision to impose taxes on Christian church’s& its properties in the holy land pic.twitter.com/6xSKDzQA0k
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.