JERUSALEM — The doors of Jerusalem’s sacred Church of the Holy Sepulchre were shuttered Sunday by Christian leaders in the Holy Land amid a growing dispute with Israel over the future of multiple church-owned properties and lands that Christians say should be protected by international law.
The unprecedented move at a site that each day draws thousands to the place where Christians believe Jesus was crucified, buried and later resurrected comes after the Jerusalem municipality took steps to collect taxes on church properties in the city. The municipality says the churches owe it more than $185 million on certain properties used for commercial purposes.
The site’s closure is also a response to proposed legislation that could block the churches from making commercial deals with investors on land they leased long term to the Israeli government nearly 70 years ago.
At a news conference in front of the church’s bolted wooden doors and in a joint statement that followed, the leaders of the Greek Orthodox, Catholic and Armenian churches said Israel was waging a “systematic campaign against the churches and the Christian community in the Holy Land, in flagrant violation of the existing status quo.”
“Recently, this systematic and offensive campaign has reached an unprecedented level as the Jerusalem municipality issued scandalous collection notices and orders of seizure of Church assets, properties and bank accounts for alleged debts of punitive municipal taxes,” the church leaders wrote.
They said that the step breached agreements and international obligations by Israel toward the church and that it “seems as an attempt to weaken the Christian presence in Jerusalem.”
Closing the church’s doors comes at a highly sensitive time after a potentially destabilizing decision by President Trump to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move the U.S. Embassy there from Tel Aviv. Local Muslims and Christians have said that such a move could upset the religious balance in Jerusalem, a city holy to all three Abrahamic religions.
Palestinians have also said that the formal recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and transferring the embassy there makes it impossible for the United States to be a fair broker in any future peace process between them and Israel.
Further alienating the Palestinians, the U.S. State Department confirmed on Friday speculation that the U.S. Embassy would move to Jerusalem in May, in time for Israel’s 70th anniversary.
During his Dec. 6 speech, Trump lauded Israel for building a country “where Jews, Muslims, and Christians, and people of all faiths, are free to live and worship according to their conscience and according to their beliefs.”
The latest dispute between church leaders and Israeli lawmakers appears to be a litmus test for that.
After the news conference Sunday, the Israeli parliament agreed to hold off discussing the legislation to “ease tensions with church leaders in Jerusalem and find a compromise.”
But Saeb Erekat, secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organization, said the dispute showed the “dramatic reality of the Palestinian people in Jerusalem, and particularly of our churches.”
Most of the Christians in Jerusalem, the rest of Israel and the West Bank are of Palestinian heritage.
“It’s time for President Trump and his administration to realize the consequences of their encouragement for the Israeli policies of occupation and exclusivity in Jerusalem,” Erekat said.
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat said the new taxation policies would not affect the churches and would cover only properties belonging to church authorities that are used for commercial purposes.
“In Jerusalem, all are equal under the law — Christians, Muslims, and Jews alike. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre — as is the case for all of Jerusalem’s churches, synagogues, and mosques — is exempt from municipal taxes,” he said in a statement.
But he said hotels and office spaces owned by the various churches “are not exempt from municipal taxes, regardless of their ownership.”
Rachel Azaria, the Israeli lawmaker behind the legislation, also said her bill was not designed to take away property belonging to religious institutions but focuses on large tracts of land leased by church authorities to Israel not long after the state’s creation in 1948.
Several years ago, it was revealed that the land, upon which sit hundreds of residential apartment blocks and national institutions, was sold by the Greek Orthodox Church in million-dollar commercial deals to private developers. If approved by parliament, the law would confiscate the lands sold by the church in private deals and prevent similar transactions in the future.
“This is not about religion; this is about money,” said Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, a member of the Jerusalem City Council who helped draft the legislation. “The church is trying to profit in the millions on the backs of thousands of Jerusalem residents who might lose their homes.”
Greek Orthodox Church leaders in Jerusalem also have been at odds with their own followers, who have accused Patriarch Theophilos III of selling off church property without their consent.
A document put together by the Orthodox Central Council shows that at least 20 tracts of land or properties were sold or leased by the church synod over the past 10 years, garnering an estimated $101,114,285 for the church.
In an earlier interview, Theophilos had said he has had no choice but to sell or lease land held by the church to finance its day-to-day business in Israel and the Palestinian territories, as well as in Jordan and Qatar — all areas under his jurisdiction. He also had to pay off debts left over from bad real estate deals executed by his predecessors, he said.