Churches and municipality in game of chicken: ‘Who will swerve first?’

‘We have no one influential to talk to in the government,’ church insider says

Worshippers hold candles as they take part in the Christian Orthodox Holy Fire ceremony at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old city May 4, 2013.  (photo credit: REUTERS/AMMAR AWAD)
Worshippers hold candles as they take part in the Christian Orthodox Holy Fire ceremony at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old city May 4, 2013.
(photo credit: REUTERS/AMMAR AWAD)
When municipal tax inspectors came to a church in the capital’s Old City threatening to impound items, it felt like an “act of war,” a source within one of the churches says.
On Tuesday, for the third day in a row, the Catholic, Armenian and Greek Orthodox churches in Jerusalem kept the doors of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre closed, in an unprecedented battle with city hall and the State of Israel over land and taxation.
The Prime Minister's Office announced that the municipality had agreed to suspend collection of taxes and establish a team led by Minister Tzahi Hanegbi to formulate a solution to the crises.
So how did the churches win this round with the city and what was at stake?
Most officials at the three churches involved are barred from speaking to the press, and the churches are tight-lipped in general when it comes to sensitive topics regarding land, taxation and negotiations with the State of Israel. In addition the hierarchies of the three churches have not kept their laymen or their sprawling networks of priests, brotherhoods, educational institutions and monks in the loop about all aspects of what caused the dispute or their response.
The current crisis was ostensibly set in motion by the Jerusalem Municipality’s decision to begin collecting property tax from “multi-use” properties, or those not being used for prayer. City hall told the Prime Minister’s Office and the Finance, Interior and Foreign ministries that it was seeking a total of NIS 650 million from 887 properties. It also sought to put a lien on bank accounts of the Armenian, Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches.
Mayor Nir Barkat said that it was unfair for the residents of the capital to fund these “huge sums” and that “the state should deal with the consequences.”
According to Israel Hayom, the amounts of the bank liens are different for each church – NIS 11 million for the Catholics, NIS 7m. for the Anglicans, NIS 2m. for the Armenians and NIS 570,000 for the Greeks. Officials from numerous churches signed a joint statement condemning the move, foremost among them the Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III, the Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Patriarch Nourhan Manougian, the Latin Patriarchate’s Apostolic Administrator Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa and the Franciscan Order’s Custos of the Holy Land Father Francesco Patton.
The churches decided to respond with “shock and awe” to the city’s decision.
THE DISPUTE comes as the Vatican and Israel are still involved in bilateral negotiations based on the Fundamental Agreement they signed in 1993, article 10, paragraph 2. The 1993 agreement said that the parties would negotiate a “comprehensive agreement containing solutions acceptable to both parties on unclear, unsettled, disputed issues, concerning property, economic and fiscal matters.”
The agreement between the Vatican and Israel was apparently almost ready to be signed when the municipality moved on the taxation issue. It is assumed that the church would be willing to pay tax on some commercial activities in exchange for the church’s rights being anchored in Israeli law. It would be similar to the relationship the Church has in the US or other states.
Although the churches appear united in their closure of the Holy Sepulchre, there are differences behind the scenes. In January, Palestinian protesters blocked Greek Patriarch Theophilos III’s car as he was on his way to church in Bethlehem. According to Reuters the protesters chanted “traitor” at the patriarch.
An NPR report in December had revealed that the Greek Orthodox Church had been selling land. A Palestinian official condemned the sales. “This is part of our land, in a way or another. We don’t want this land to be sold to our enemy.”
According to a knowledgeable source the Greeks have found themselves squeezed between the investors who want the land and the Palestinians who make up their lay community, as well as with the larger political agendas in Ramallah, Jerusalem and Amman. “The local Palestinian [Orthodox Christian] community isn’t worth considering, but the Palestinian Authority and Jordanians have been supporting the Greek patriarch against the people who oppose him.”
Now the patriarch is front and center in the battle against the city. “He has turned himself into a champion of Christian life,” says the source. This has ruffled feathers as it is unclear if his agenda relates to the taxation issue or the previous controversy surrounding the land sales.
The churches face different issues in their relationship with Israel. Whereas the Catholics are trying to sort out an agreement regarding taxation, the Greek Orthodox do not have a state behind them like the Vatican. Insofar as they have state relationships, these include close connections to Jordan, which sees itself as a protector of the status quo in Jerusalem, and with Russia and other countries. Yet the churches in Jerusalem also exist under a special status derived from the 1947 Partition Plan agreed at the UN that prefers Israel as an international city. When they reference their historic rights they also hearken back to the Ottoman period. The churches also have different types of property facing taxation, such as the Catholics who have less rental property.
Despite reports that the city has put liens on church bank accounts, the reality appears to be that many of the institutions still have access to some funds. “My checks haven’t bounced,” says a source. Each church has numerous accounts under one large account and some have multiple accounts at multiple banks. Although the churches may own land, there may be dozens of institutions on those lands, including schools and other entities, besides the commercial entities the city wants to tax.
THE SOURCE also says that the churches face another hurdle in their dealings with the state. “The big issue is the [Greek Orthodox] Church doesn’t have anyone to talk to in the government.”
When there is a problem the churches turn to Cesar Marjieh at the department of Christian affairs in the Interior Ministry. But the source says that this department has no real power in a crisis like the one unfolding.
The source compares the current crisis to the 1999 crisis in Nazareth, when Muslims sought to build a mosque next to the Church of the Annunciation and riots resulted. At the time the Sepulchre door was closed as well. “Those Israelis who did listen [in 1999], they are like the good cops, but they have no power. Only the bad cops have the power,” says the source. “Now they say: ‘We really admire you, but pay your taxes or else.’”
The churches are sensitive to any issues involving Jerusalem, because they also see the struggle as connected to Israel’s efforts to assert sovereignty in the city. However, each church approaches this differently. For the Catholics Israel is the de facto ruler in the city and is responsible for security and other issues. But that doesn’t change the status quo as far as they are concerned.
One church member I spoke to had served in other countries in the region. “Other Middle Eastern countries are usually not analogous to Israel because they don’t have the same rule of law.”
He recalls churches receiving free electricity and not paying sales tax because mosques were also exempt. The churches prefer a model similar to the West. However, churches have faced the same tax demands in Europe. Since 2011 in Italy there has been tremendous pressure to collect more tax from the Catholic Church, which has extensive holdings.
Now Israel and the churches are caught in a “game of chicken,” says the source. Who will swerve first? Will the pilgrims blame the churches for closing the doors, or Israel? Some pilgrims saved their whole life to see this church, and the source wonders when the frustration of these pilgrims will unleash itself. The issue may also boil down to the Vatican finally calling off the solidarity with the Greeks.
“It comes down to fairness. Everyone has obligations. The church has to live in harmony with the state and it has obligations. The state also has obligations. But there is one big problem. There is no one to talk to in the government. The mayor is more powerful than the government.”
The source says that at the end of the day, the pressure appears to actually be one brought by the municipality to punish the government in general through stoking this crisis. The lack of response from the Foreign Ministry, the Prime Minister’s Office and the Finance Ministry, he thinks, is due to lack of focus. “Everyone is overworked, on our side and theirs.”