A faction of Christian leaders shut down the renowned Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Israel in a protest of land policy and the country’s taxation system. The leaders released an official statement claiming that the Christians living in that region were besieged, and they were forced to look for alternative ways of helping them.
The leaders announced on Sunday that the church, where a majority of Christians believe that Jesus Christ was buried, will remain closed indefinitely. A joint statement from the Greek Orthodox, Armenian, and Roman Catholic Church accused the Israel government of tolerating systematic and well-choreographed attacks against the Christian faithful in the holy city.
This is the second time the holy church is being shut down. It was first closed in 1990 when a high number of Christians protested at Israel settlers taking over a Christian building. The church leaders stated that they opposed the controversial decision by the city government to start levying heavy taxes on church property.
They are also protesting against the proposed bill in the country’s parliament that seeks to make it harder for churches to sell their property to private developers. The church leaders argue that this move will lead to forceful eviction of the Christians from the city so that the government can take over.
Traditionally, the Christian churches in Jerusalem are among the largest landowners in the city. However, the mayor of Jerusalem recently came forward and stated that it was unfair the churches don’t pay full taxes, yet they own vast properties in the city. Most of the church bank accounts have already been shut down in a move that the government officials term as a way of pursuing the unpaid debts.
The mayor said that the churches owed the municipality close to $186 million in taxes, and added that it’s time for the churches to pay up and avoid overburdening the residents with massive debt.
The Greek Orthodox Church has been making a lot of money from huge land sales in the recent past. Government authorities were attracted by the low prices of the land sales, which suggested that significant corrupt dealings were taking place behind the scenes. However, the church denied the allegations and stated that everything is done in the right manner and all records are available for scrutiny by the state authorities.
Control of the closed Church of the Holy Sepulchre is shared between the Armenian, Catholic, Greek churches, and two smaller denominations.
The churches have already sold some of the lands to private developers since 2010, claiming that it’s the only way that they can use to raise funds for running their activities. According to Rachel Azaria, a lawmaker in Israel, representatives of some of the so-called investors are moving from door-to-door demanding that people living in the apartments to pay between $50,000 and $140,000 or they risk losing the ownership of their homes.
Rachel says that the proposed bill has nothing to do with the churches and their land. She reiterates the bill is meant to protect thousands of families that are at risk of losing their homes.
The second bill that the church leaders are opposed to will see the churches start to pay taxes on all buildings that serve different purposes other than just being places of worship. The leaders argue that this controversial move will breach a pre-existing agreement between churches in the city and the government authorities. They term this move as a systematic and offensive move meant to bring down Christianity in the city.
Defender of Christianity
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has come forward on several occasions and declared that Israel is the only defender of Christianity in Middle East. However, the churches which have existed in the city for more than 1,000 years have a strained relationship with the Jewish-state authorities.
Israel has always taken pride as the defender of Christianity at a time when the Christian faithful have faced widespread violence and persecution in the Middle East. As a result, the country receives an approximated 500,000 Christian tourists every year boosting the country’s economy. The current confrontation appears to be the most serious between the churches and the state in decades.
Back at the church, the faithful Christians, some of whom have traveled from far places, wait and pray outside.
~ 1776 Christian