Land in Jerusalem is at centre of tensions between municipality and churches. (Photo: World Watch Monitor)
Land in Jerusalem is at centre of tensions between the municipality and churches. (Photo: World Watch Monitor)

The Jerusalem municipality has announced that churches in the city need to start paying municipal taxes, but church leaders have objected, saying they already “invest billions”.

In a statement released yesterday (14 February), the Patriarchs and Church Heads of Jerusalem said charging them taxes “is contrary to the historic position between the Churches within the Holy City of Jerusalem and the civil authorities across the centuries”.

They pointed out that there has always been the understanding that the churches make their contributions through the building of schools, hospitals and homes, in many cases caring for the most vulnerable in society.

According to the church leaders, imposing taxes “jeopardises the Church’s ability to conduct its ministry in this land on behalf of its communities and the worldwide [C]hurch”.

The leaders signed off by saying they “stand firm and united” to “defend their presence and properties”.

The authorities, however, have said that the special arrangement for churches only applies to properties that are used “for prayer, for the teaching of religion or for needs arising for from that”, reported The Times of Israel. On Tuesday (13 February) the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate heard that all of their assets would be frozen until they cleared a debt of unpaid tax bills amounting to the equivalent of US $8.7 million.

“This is the first official notification we have received. Before that, we just heard about the city’s plans through the media,” a source within the patriarchate told the newspaper.

The church leaders were reported to be planning to boycott the annual meeting with the mayor and senior municipal staff yesterday (15 February) in protest.

‘Encroachments on the status quo’

In September last year the heads of the Greek Orthodox, Catholic, Armenian, Coptic, Lutheran and Anglican Churches condemned what they called “recent further encroachment on the status quo” – a move by the government to limit the property rights of churches.

The proposed “church lands bill”, signed by 40 members of the Knesset, Israel’s lower house, would give the government authority to nationalise church property that is leased or sold to third parties.

In December the Greek Patriarch of Jerusalem, Theophilos III, was in the UK to rally support against the bill and received support from church leaders and parliamentarians. “Property rights and religious freedom are at the bedrock of any democracy. The proposed bill curtails both,” said London-based Coptic bishop Angaelos.

Israeli authorities and the Greek Orthodox Church have been clashing over the sale of land and property by the church.

Meanwhile in the southern Israeli town of Dimona, locals have staged repeated protests against the opening of a centre for Messianic Jews, while a 55-year-old Christian bookshop in Tel Aviv faces closure over a dispute with the owner of the premises, who says the shop cannot sell Christian books other than the Bible.