The Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Sunday was locked until further notice as church leaders angrily retaliated against what they claim to be a “systematic campaign” by Israel to harm the Christian community in the Holy Land.
In the presence of Franciscan and Armenian religious leaders, Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos read out a strongly-worded statement and then locked the ancient doors of the church in Jerusalem’s Old City, believed by Christians to be the exact location of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
The protest comes amid the Israeli Parliament’s move to restrict the Greek Orthodox Church– one of the largest landowners in Israel– from selling its properties as it sees fit, and a move by Jerusalem municipal politicians to assess the church millions of shekels in taxes the Church claims is illegal and discriminatory.
The mayor of Jerusalem Air Barkat lashed out against the Christian leaders’ move, stating that Church buildings are exempt from taxes, but not Church properties that are used for income, or commercial purposes, claiming in Tweets that the Church owes upwards of 650 million shekels or more than $180 million.
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. There is absolutely no change in this regard.
— Mayor Nir Barkat (@NirBarkat) February 25, 2018
The mayor doubled down on his Tweet stating in another Tweet that Jerusalem’s residents will no longer bear the burden of the Church’s debts.
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
But the Church remained closed as pilgrims from throughout the world approached to find the doors bolted closed.
“We will decide when and how the church will re-open,” Theophilos said, likening Israeli policies to anti-Semitic laws enacted against Jews in Europe.
“We, the heads of churches in charge of the Holy Sepulchre and the status quo governing the various Christian holy sites in Jerusalem… are following with great concern the systematic campaign against the churches and the Christian community in the Holy Land, in flagrant violation of the existing status quo,” the Greek Orthodox Patriarch said.
“Recently, this systematic and offensive campaign has reached an unprecedented level as the Jerusalem Municipality [has] issued scandalous collection notices and orders of seizure of Church assets, properties and bank accounts for alleged debts of punitive municipal taxes.
“These actions breach existing agreements and international obligations which guarantee the rights and the privileges of the churches, in what seems an attempt to weaken the Christian presence in Jerusalem. The greatest victims in this are those impoverished families who will go without food and housing, as well as the children who will be unable to attend school.”
The patriarch then lashed out at what he called the “discriminatory and racist” bill in the Israeli Knesset that would confiscate former church land.
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
“This abhorrent bill is set to advance today in a meeting of a ministerial committee which, if approved, would make the expropriation of the lands of churches possible. This reminds us all of laws of a similar nature which were enacted against the Jews during dark periods in Europe.”
The closing comes at one of the busiest times of the year for the tourist industry in Jerusalem as tens of thousands of Christian pilgrims from throughout the world visit the city’s holy sites as the Easter holiday approaches.
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