Christians close doors of famous Jerusalem church to protest taxes

A general view of the interior of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre during the Palm Sunday Easter procession in Jerusalem's Old City

A general view of the interior of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre during the Palm Sunday Easter procession in Jerusalem's Old City

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem locked its doors and closed until further notice to protest a new municipal tax policy and a bill that would allow the Israeli government to confiscate some church land in exchange for compensation.

Christian officials did not clarify how long the closure of the church, which is considered the holiest site in Christianity, would last.

The statement criticized a recent bill passed by the Israeli parliament that allowed the Israeli state to take over Christian buildings leased to private companies, and plans to begin imposing taxes on Christian church properties.

State Minister for Media Affairs Mohammad Momani expressed the Kingdom's rejection of the "systematic" measures by the Israeli authorities to alter the historical and legal status quo that exists in the holy city including the confiscation of properties and bank accounts of the city's churches by the so-called "Jerusalem Municipality" under the pretext of not paying dues.

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The Christian leaders called the Knesset bill "abhorrent" and claimed that it is similar to laws "which were enacted against the Jews during dark periods in Europe".

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat has said the city is owed $186 million in uncollected taxes on Church assets.

He warned of the seriousness of Israeli legislation that are now being discussed, which intend to facilitate the confiscation of church lands in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, particularly in East Jerusalem. He said all churches were exempt from the tax changes, and that only Church-owned "hotels, halls and businesses" would be affected.

Meanwhile, Rachel Azaria of the Kulanu party, who proposed the land legislation, said that it aims to curb the fears of Israelis who live on lands previously held by the Greek Orthodox Church and which were sold to private developers.

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Israeli authorities have recently imposed a property tax (Anona) upon churches, worth up to millions of shekels.

"It is one of the main religious attractions, and to us it was very important to visit it because it is our first time [here]", Elona, 20, told Agence France-Presse.

The cave where Christians believe Jesus was buried is located within the church, while the traditional site of his crucifixion is a short walk away, also inside the church.

In a sad ceremony, Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Church leaders closed the doors of the holy site, in presence of representatives of the two Muslim families who were entrusted as the custodians of the ancient key to the church, followed by a statement read by Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, Theophilos III, explaining the reasons of the decision.

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