The Church of Saint John the Baptist in Jerusalem.
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/ REURERS)
The Jerusalem Municipality’s recent announcement that it will start collecting property tax (arnona) from church-owned properties is harmful and “undermines the sacred character of Jerusalem,” according to an open letter from 13 patriarchs and heads of churches in the capital.
In the letter, which was published on Wednesday, the church leaders said that this move contradicts hundreds of years of understanding between the religious institutions and the civil authorities in the city. They called on the municipality to retract its decision.
“Following the statement by the Municipality of Jerusalem declaring that the churches in Jerusalem should pay municipal taxes... We, the heads of churches in Jerusalem, declare that such a statement is contrary to the historic position between the churches within the Holy City of Jerusalem and the civil authorities across the centuries,” the letter reads.
“The civil authorities have always recognized and respected the great contribution of the Christian churches, which invest billions in building schools, hospitals, and homes, many for the elderly and disadvantaged, in the Holy Land.”
The Christian leaders then attacked the municipality’s move, saying that it is harmful.
“We declare that such a measure both undermines the sacred character of Jerusalem, and jeopardizes the Church’s ability to conduct its ministry in this land on behalf of its communities and the world-wide Church,” they said.
“We request the municipality to retract their statement and ensure that the status quo which was sanctioned by the sacred history is maintained, and the character of the Holy City of Jerusalem is not violated.
“We stand firm and united in our position to defend our presence and properties,” they concluded.
The municipality stressed to the Post
that the tax will be only collected from places that are not houses of prayer but are owned by churches.
“The Jerusalem Municipality has excellent and respectful connections with every church in the city, and it will continue protecting their freedom of religion,” the city said. “However, it cannot accept the situation in which hotels and business are exempted from paying property tax only because the property is owned by a church.”
The letter was signed by 13 heads of churches, including Patriarch Theophilos III of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate; Patriarch Nourhan Manougian of the Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Patriarchate; Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa of the Latin Patriarchate; and Fr. Francesco Patton, the Franciscan Order’s custodian of the Holy Land.
A source in the Greek Patriarchate told The Jerusalem Post
that the move to collect taxes is seen as an “attack on the religious status quo in the city,” and complained that the move was done unilaterally with no correspondence with the church.
Last week 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 tax from 887 properties that are not houses of prayer.
Mayor Nir Barkat, when announcing the move, said that it is unfair that the residents of Jerusalem should suffering because of unjustified tax exemptions. If the state prevents collection, the municipality will turn to the High Court of Justice, he said.
“We would not allow a situation in which the residents of Jerusalem are funding these huge sums [in unpaid debt],” Barkat said. “The state should deal with the consequences of its decisions – either the state will reimburse us and give us our money back, which should fund the improvement of our city, or we could bill it as the law states. We plan to keep collecting it and to enforce the law, and if needed, we will file a petition to the High Court of Justice.”
The municipality explained that it had refrain until now from collecting the tax, because it was restricted by the government, which said that it has an agreement with the Church bodies. However, a reexamination of the legal issues indicates that the municipality should exercise its power to collect taxes.