Worshippers stand in front of the closed doors of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City February 26, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun.
(photo credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre reopened early Wednesday morning after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu became personally involved and froze the measures that had infuriated church leaders.
The site had been closed since Sunday.
“We, the heads of Churches in charge of the Holy Sepulchre and the status quo governing the various Christian holy sites in Jerusalem – the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, the Custodian of the Holy Land and the Armenian Patriarchate – give thanks to God for the statement released earlier today by Prime Minister Netanyahu and offer our gratitude to all those who have worked tirelessly to uphold the Christian presence in Jerusalem and to defend the status quo,” the leaders of the three denominations in charge of the site said in a statement.
“After the constructive intervention of the prime minister, the Churches look forward to engage with Minister [Tzachi] Hanegbi, and with all those who love Jerusalem to ensure that our holy city, where our Christian presence continues to face challenges, remains a place where the three monotheistic faiths may live and thrive together,” it added.
Netanyahu became involved after it became clear that the closure of the church had the potential to cause Israel considerable diplomatic damage, and both Jordan and the Palestinians claimed that this was an indication that Israel was “threatening the presence of Christians in the Holy Land.”
The decision to shut the doors of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre came in protest over the Jerusalem Municipality’s plan to collect property tax on church-owned properties that are not used as houses of worship and to protest a bill that would authorize the expropriation of land sold by churches in return for compensation to the investors that purchased the properties.
This legislation was designed to protect hundreds of Jerusalem homeowners whose homes were built on land owned by the churches – primarily the Greek Orthodox Church – but which has since been sold to other investors, leading to uncertainty as to the future of their homes.
Netanyahu agreed with Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat to establish a team led by Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, with the participation of all the relevant parties, to find a solution to both issues.
In the meantime, the municipality has frozen its tax collection efforts, and legislation concerning the sale of church property will be suspended.
In announcing the arrangement, the Prime Minister’s Office issued a statement: “Israel is proud to be the only country in the Middle East where Christians and believers of all faiths have full freedom of religion and worship. Israel is home to a flourishing Christian community and welcomes its Christian friends from all over the world.”
Earlier this month, the municipality announced its intention to start collecting taxes from properties owned by churches that are not houses of prayer. Two weeks ago, the municipality notified the Finance, Interior and Foreign ministries and the Prime Minister’s Office that it will start collecting a total of NIS 650 million in taxes from 887 properties on which there are no houses of prayer. It said it has refrained from such tax collections thus far because the state did not allow it.
This move prompted outrage from the churches based in Jerusalem, which decided on Sunday to close the doors of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
In a joint announcement by the three churches (the Greek Orthodox, Catholic and Armenian churches) running the holy site, the move was dubbed a “systematic campaign of abuse against churches and Christians.”
The Jerusalem Municipality said in a statement that it welcomed the effort to resolve the tax issue.
It also stressed that it is “determined to resolve past debts and future tax payments, according to the law, for the sake of the residents of Jerusalem.”
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