View of the city of Jerusalem where in recent weeks churches have been protesting against a proposed tax levy. (Photo: Open Doors International)
In recent weeks churches in Jerusalem have been protesting against a proposed tax levy. (Photo: Open Doors International)

The doors to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem were re-opened this morning (28 February) after plans to tax church property in Jerusalem were suspended.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office announced yesterday (27 February) that a team would be formed to “formulate a solution” with the churches’ representatives, AP reported.

The doors of the basilica, considered Christianity’s holiest site, had been closed on Sunday (25 February) following weeks of protests by churches in Jerusalem against what church leaders, in a joint statement, called a “systematic campaign against the Churches and the Christian community of the Holy Land, in flagrant violation of the existing status quo”. They accused the Jerusalem municipality of issuing “scandalous collection notices and orders of seizure of Church assets, properties and bank accounts for alleged debts of punitive municipal taxes”.

Bank accounts frozen

Churches in Jerusalem have been exempt from paying taxes for centuries, as they were considered to be making contributions in other ways – such as education and social work – but the government has now said the exemption only applies to properties used “for prayer, for the teaching of religion, or for needs arising for from that” and not those used for commercial purposes.

The government says the churches in Jerusalem owe more than US $186 million in taxes for commercial property they hold in the city, including hotels and offices.

The Greek Orthodox Church alone – the largest stakeholder in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, according to Canadian broadcaster NPR – was presented earlier this month with a bill of “outstanding taxes” amounting to the equivalent of US $8.7 million, and told its assets would be frozen until the debt was cleared.

Bank accounts have also been frozen for the Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center (owned by the Vatican), the Custody of the Holy Land, and the Lutheran Church in Jerusalem.

“There are more than 1,500 employees working in these institutions and all of them are at risk of losing their jobs,” says Christian charity Open Doors International.

Church-lands bill

Netanyahu’s office said in yesterday’s announcement that a controversial church-lands bill would also be suspended.

The proposed bill was purportedly aimed at preventing church land from being sold off to unknown buyers, protecting Jerusalem’s residents who live in homes built on land leased from the churches to the State of Israel shortly after its inception in 1948.

However, church leaders said the bill was another move to weaken the Christian presence in the city, and that they needed to sell property to pay long-standing debts.

The sale of two hotels in Jaffa Gate by the Greek Orthodox Church in 2005 sparked large-scale protests.

Since then more deals have come to light. “In recent years, church leaders have quietly sold off several properties to anonymous investors fronted by companies registered in far-flung tax havens,” NPR reported. “Israeli and Jewish businessmen were later identified as some of the buyers. These deals have only recently become public, raising panic among Israelis whose apartments are built on church land and leading to small but growing public protests by some Palestinian church members.” They fear that land that belongs to them will be sold to Jewish settlers.