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politics

Israel Freezes Church Tax Plan After Holy Sepulchre Uproar

Updated on
  • Plan to tax church-owned property in Jerusalem is delayed
  • Proposal led clerics to close venerated church in protest

Israel put on hold a proposal to tax church-owned property in Jerusalem after top Christian clerics in the city closed the venerated Church of the Holy Sepulchre to protest the planned levies.

The office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Tuesday that a professional team would meet with church representatives to find a solution regarding municipal taxation of church assets that aren’t houses of worship. Church leaders welcomed the “constructive intervention of the prime minister” in a statement late Tuesday, and announced the re-opening of the Holy Sepulchre starting Wednesday.

For now, “the Jerusalem municipality is suspending the collection actions it has taken in recent weeks,” the prime minister’s office said in a statement. The Jerusalem municipality had recently issued orders to tax commercial church properties such as hotels, saying they shouldn’t enjoy the same tax breaks that houses of worship do.

Leaders of the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Armenian Apostolic churches in Jerusalem on Sunday took the unprecedented step of shuttering the Holy Sepulchre to protest the proposed change in the status quo. They released a letter accusing Israel of conducting a “systematic and offensive campaign” against Christians and trying to “weaken the Christian presence in Jerusalem.”

The allegations put Israel, which prides itself on being a haven for Christians in the Middle East, on the defensive.

The Holy Sepulchre, built at the place where Christian tradition holds that Jesus was crucified and buried, is Christianity’s holiest site. It remained closed on Tuesday, and earlier in the day, hundreds had gathered outside to protest the proposed taxes.

The statement from Netanyahu’s office said an Israeli cabinet minister will also examine issues concerning the sale of leased church land. After the church was shuttered, cabinet ministers postponed discussion of a draft law that would let the state expropriate such land on the ground that sales expose homeowners to potential eviction or significantly higher land lease costs.

(Updates with church reopening in second paragraph.)
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