Days After Church of Holy Sepulchre Shuttered, Israel Backtracks on Steps That Spurred Crisis

Israel freezes legislation that spurred controversy while Jerusalem municipality will postpone tax collection from church-owned properties

A Christian visitor prays outside the shuttered Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, February 26, 2018.
Olivier Fitoussi

Israel opted on Tuesday to take steps to resolve its ongoing crisis with church leaders and the Christian community that led to their indefinite shuttering of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Sunday. The Israeli government will freeze a controversial bill that recently spurred the crisis, while the Jerusalem municipality will postpone the collection of taxes from church-owned properties.

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat have established a team headed by Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi to try and formulate a solution concerning the issue of tax collection from the churches, according to a statement by the Prime Minister's Office.

Further, Netanyahu has asked Hanegbi to look into the matter of land sales in Jerusalem, following a request by the heads of major churches. All pending legislation on the matter will be shelved while Hanegbi reviews the issue.

Christian visitors pray outside the shuttered Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, February 25, 2018.
Mahmoud Illean/AP

>>'This was a lifetime dream': Heartbreak for pilgrims at Jerusalem's shuttered Church of the Holy Sepulchre ■  Major church leaders opt to keep Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulchre closed indefinitely

The decision to close the church was in protest of Jerusalem City Hall’s decision to act on a policy that any church properties that are not places of worship should be subject to municipal taxes. The municipality claims the three Christian denominations collectively owe some 186 million shekels ($53 million) in back taxes.

The move to close the church was also timed to coincide with a meeting by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, which had been scheduled to discuss a bill, to be applied retroactively, to allow the state to expropriate land in Jerusalem that the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches have sold off since 2010 to private investors. Discussion of that bill has since been postponed.

The ministerial panel was set to discuss the church lands bill, which is designed to put an end to most of the major land sales carried out by the churches to private real estate companies. Most of the lands involved, about 500 dunams (125 acres) are in the centrally located neighborhoods of Rehavia, Talbieh and Nayot. Some of the residents living on the land have protested the move, which would force them to evacuate when the lease on the land ends.

The bill would authorize the finance minister, with the approval of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, to expropriate lands sold since the beginning of the decade in return for compensation for the companies that bought the land.

The bill is quite unusual in terms of Israeli jurisprudence, and because it applies retroactively to land sales that have been finalized. It limits the property rights of the churches and private firms that bought the land.