The heads of the Christian churches in Jerusalem plan to boycott an event hosted by Mayor Nir Barkat to protest the city’s new policy on municipal tax payments for church property.
The city, for its part, says it “cannot accept a situation in which hotels, banquet halls and other businesses are exempt from arnona [municipal tax] just because they are under church ownership.”
On Thursday, the mayor will host the traditional New Year’s reception attended by the heads of the city’s Christian denominations.
The church leaders, who say the new policy breaches the city’s status quo, have signed a statement harshly criticizing the municipality.
“Following the statement by the Jerusalem municipality declaring that the churches in Jerusalem should pay municipal taxes, we, the heads of churches in Jerusalem, declare that such a statement is contrary to the historical position between the churches in the Holy City of Jerusalem and the civil authorities across the centuries,” the church leaders said.
“The civil authorities have always recognized and respected the great contribution of the Christian churches, which invest billions in building schools, hospitals and homes, many for the elderly and disadvantaged, in the Holy Land."
The churches say the municipal tax undermines Jerusalem’s sacred character and jeopardizes a church’s ability to conduct its ministry in the Holy Land on behalf of its communities and the worldwide church.
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The churches say the municipality’s new policy is part of Barkat’s fight with Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon over the city’s budget and an attempt by Barkat to embarrass the government.
The municipality says the New Year’s reception will take place as planned and many representatives of the Christian and Muslim communities have confirmed that they will attend. It says the municipality maintains a good relationship with all the churches in the city and will continue to see to their needs and guarantee full freedom of worship.
“But we cannot accept a situation in which hotels, banquet halls and other businesses are exempt from arnona just because they are under church ownership. These are not houses of worship, which are exempt by law from paying arnona, but properties that are used for commercial activities,” the municipality said.
“We will no longer consent to have Jerusalem residents fund these huge sums. Either the government will compensate us and return these sums to us that are designated for the city’s development, or we will collect them as required by law.”
The churches’ statement was signed by Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III; Armenian Patriarch Nourhan Manougian; Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the apostolic administrator for the Latin Patriarchate; Fr. Francesco Patton, custos of the Holy Land; Episcopal Archbishop Suheil Dawani; Coptic Patriarch Anba Antonious; as well as the heads of the Ethiopian, Maronite, Syrian, Lutheran, Syrian-Catholic and Armenian-Catholic churches.