Christian leaders are taking the rare step of closing the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, built at what is said to be the site of Jesus’ crucifixion, in protest at Israeli tax policies which they say unfairly target the Christian community. Leaders of the Catholic, Greek, and Armenian denominations said they were indefinitely closing the church, home to Christianity’s holiest sites, because of a “systematic campaign” by Israeli authorities. The move is the first time the church has been closed since 1990, when it was shut in protest at Israeli settlers taking over a Christian building, and it was not clear when its 1,000-year-old doors will open again. “This reminds of us all of laws of a similar nature which were enacted against the Jews during dark periods in Europe,” the churches said. The Christian denominations said they were protesting against the decision by Jerusalem city government to start levying taxes on church properties and a proposed bill in the Israeli parliament that would make it harder for them to sell property. More than 500,000 Christian tourists visit Israel every year Credit: THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images The Christian churches are some of the largest landowners in the city and the mayor of Jerusalem has it is unfair that they do not pay full taxes on their vast property holdings. Church bank accounts have been shut down as officials pursue what they say are unpaid debts. Israeli ministers are also considering a bill which would stop them selling land in Jerusalem to property developers, raising the prospect that people who live on the land would be forced out of their homes. The Greek Orthodox church in particular has been making vast land sales in recent years. Several of the sales have been at low prices, prompting allegations that corrupt deals were taking part behind the scenes. The church has strenuously denied these accusations. Control of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is shared between the Catholic, Greek and Armenian churches, as well as two smaller denominations. In a joint statement released on Sunday, the leaders of the three largest denominations said the moves by Jerusalem city government and Israeli minsters were part of a “systematic and offensive campaign”. Benjamin Netanyahu presents Israel as a defender of Christians Credit: GALI TIBBON/AFP/Getty Images “These actions breach existing agreements and international obligations which guarantee the rights and the privileges of Churches within the Holy City of Jerusalem and their relationship with the civil authorities,” they said. “As a measure of protest, we decided to take this unprecedented step of closure of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Together with all Heads of Churches in the Holy land we stand united, firm and resolute in protecting our rights and our properties.” There was no immediate comment from Israeli authorities. The churches, which have existed for more than a millennium, have a complicated relationship with the 70-year-old Jewish state. Israel prides itself as a protector of Christianity at a time when Christians face widespread persecution and violence in the Middle East. More than 500,000 Christian tourists visit Israel each year and tourism is a major part of the Israeli economy. “I’m proud that Israel is a country in which Christians not only survive, but they thrive,” Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said last year at Christmas. However, most of the churches’ local adherents are Palestinians and the churches often speak out about the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the disastrous humanitarian situation in Gaza. The two sides also clash regularly over property rights and the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and in east Jerusalem. The current confrontation appears to be the most serious conflict between the churches and the Israeli state in decades. Donald Trump stopped at the church during his visit to Jerusalem last year and it is usually a key part of any itinerary for tourists visiting the ancient city.
Source: Yahoo! News