For three days in February, the doors of Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre—the traditional site of Christ’s crucifixion, burial, and resurrection—were closed to the public. It was a unique bit of bad luck for those who’d made the pilgrimage to the holy city in that period: this was only the third time in at least thirty years that the Holy Sepulchre was inaccessible to visitors.
“Pilgrims are upset and confused and asking what’s going on,” a Palestinian Christian friend wrote me. “I saw an American woman today who said she was saving money for ten years to come and visit Jerusalem and specifically the Holy Sepulchre, and she found it closed.”
The leaders of the three Christian churches in charge of the Holy Sepulchre—Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III, Armenian Orthodox Patriarch Nourhan Maougian, and Franciscan Custos Francesco Patton—blocked access to the holy site to protest two perceived threats to the Christian community in Jerusalem. The first was the so-called church lands bill, legislation soon to be taken up in the Knesset regarding property held by Christian churches; the second was Jerusalem’s recent imposition of municipal taxes on church-run institutions.
The church lands bill would allow the Israeli government to unilaterally expropriate any land sold or leased by a Christian church since 2010, unless the transaction meets with state approval. As church leaders are quick to point out, only the Christian churches are named in the bill (hence its name). The obvious target is the Greek Orthodox Church, which is among the largest landowners in Israel. It had leased much of these holdings to the Jewish National Fund in the 1950s, for ninety-nine year terms. Today, many Jews live on these leased properties, in the centrally located neighborhoods of Rehavia, Talbieh, and Nayot. The Israel Museum and the prime minister’s residence stand on leased church property—the latter right next door to a convent. The bill’s backers worry what might happen to tenants should churches lease or sell these properties at fair market rates. Some Israelis already live on land sold, unbeknownst to them, to private investors. These sales have also angered some Palestinians, who demanded the resignation of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch for making the transactions without transparency and approval.
The levying of taxes by Jerusalem stems from a dispute between Mayor Nir Barkat and the Israeli treasury. Last December, Barkat wrote a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, claiming that the Ministry of Finance has neglected to appropriate promised funds for the Jerusalem. The letter didn’t work, so Barkat ordered garbage to be dumped in front of the Finance Ministry building. Then he found alternate sources of revenue: UN- and church-owned properties. Barkat has declared that churches must pay taxes on all commercial properties: restaurants, hotels, schools, pilgrim hostels. He claimed that the churches collectively owe 650 million shekels ($186 million) in back taxes to the city government. Jerusalem then confiscated millions of Israeli shekels from Anglican, Armenian, Catholic, and Greek Orthodox bank accounts.