Major Church Leaders Opt to Keep Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulchre Closed Indefinitely

Church leaders in the city, protesting tax payments and a bill to expropriate church properties, explain that they were forced to 'use what they have' to pressure the government

Two Christian women pray by the closed door of the main entrance of the shuttered Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, February 26, 2018.
THOMAS COEX/AFP

Hundreds of pilgrims who came to the Church of Holy Sepulchre on Monday only to be greeted by closed doors after the heads of the three Christian churches in Jerusalem, who share management of the property, decided to close it in a controversial move. The heads of the three churches – the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Armenian Apostolic – met in the afternoon and decided to keep the church closed.

The decision was made to protest two moves by the Israeli authorities. The first is a bill that was to be debated Sunday by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation that would authorize the finance minister to expropriate lands that had been sold by the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches since 2010 to private developers. When the church was closed, the panel postponed the debate. The churches are also protesting the Jerusalem Municipality’s new policy on municipal tax payments (arnona) for church property. Large protest signs that had been hanging on the church bearing the pictures of Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and MK Rahel Azaria (Kulanu) have been removed.

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“We are two percent of the population, not even a Knesset seat. When someone wants to convey a message he uses what he has,” explained attorney Farid Jubran, the legal adviser to the Custos of the Holy Land (the custodian of the holy places for the Vatican).

Conversations with church officials indicate that the feeling that the churches are being toyed with by Israeli officials were an important part of the decision.  

On January 3, Mayor Barkat came to the annual Christmas meeting with the Custos, Br. Francesco Patton. Church officials had been asked to prepare a list of subjects for discussion, while city officials came with a list of their own. The issue of arnona payments for structures belonging to the Custodia Terra Sancta did not come up, although the Vatican and the city have been negotiating the issue for years.

Christian leaders stand outside the closed doors of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City, February 25, 2018.
GALI TIBBON/AFP

A month later, Custodia officials were shocked by newspaper reports of a change in the policy of the Jerusalem Municipality regarding arnona payments. A week after that, inspectors from the municipality came to the San Salvador Monastery in the Old City’s Christian Quarter, which serves as the Custodia’s headquarters, and sought to impound equipment and property.

“This wasn’t an attempt to collect taxes, it’s a declaration; they wanted to do something that would shock,” said Jubran. “It was an act of bad faith.”

The next shock came last week. Church leaders were worried about the bill, sponsored by Azaria, that would allow the expropriation of lands that the church had already sold, but Jubran wasn’t really concerned, since “all the signs and indications showed that they wouldn’t advance this bill, since it would be a fatal blow to property rights and it was hinted to us that it wouldn’t move forward. When anyone asked me I told them it wasn’t serious. “Then, suddenly, we hear that it had reached the ministerial committee and that the Justice Ministry supports it. I was driving when I heard this and I almost had an accident,” Jubran said. “There are things that you just don’t do. This law is something that can’t be accepted. As a jurist you see a bill whose title is ‘The church lands law,’ and you can’t digest it, it makes you shiver.”

The church lands bill aims to stop the major land sales by the churches to private real estate developers that have taken place over the past several years. Most of the lands involved are in the upscale Jerusalem neighborhoods of Rehavia, Talbieh and Nayot. Residents living on the land have protested the sales, which have sent their property values plummeting because they may be forced to evacuate their homes when the government’s leases on the land end.

But while pilgrims were faced with disappointment as they could not enjoy the highlight of their pilgrimmage to the Holy Land, Vijaya Nusseibeh, the guardian of the keys to the church for the past 40 years, was circulating in the courtyward on Monday as usual, seemingly unperturbed.

Jerusalem tradition has it that his family has been responsible for the keys for 1,300 years, every since it was appointed to the job by Salah e-Din. When asked if he remembered the last time the church was closed during the day, he replied, “Twenty years ago there was an American who went up to Golgotha, took down the cross and tossed the candles, so then we closed for half a day; afterward they had prayers and returned the cross to its place,” he said. “Aside from that I don’t remember a closure.”