The leaders of Jerusalem's churches have today announced the unprecedented decision to close the Church of the Holy Sepulchre until further notice, in protest at persistent moves to intimidate Christians and discriminate against churches in the Holy Land. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which dates back to the fourth century, is considered to contain the sites of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, making it the holiest site in the world for Christians.
The decision to close the Holy Sepulchre comes in response to recent actions by the Jerusalem Municipality and by members of the Israeli Knesset. The Mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, is attempting to enforce a punitive and retroactive tax on church properties in the Holy City. Furthermore, Knesset member, Rachel Azaria ("Kulanu" party) is seeking to advance the "Bill of Church Lands", which would give the Israeli government the power to confiscate church property. These actions contravene the long held Status Quo which is foundational to the guarantee of the churches' rights and privileges in the Holy Land; and critically undermines the ability of churches to carry out their pastoral mission of housing the community, feeding the poor, caring for refugees, running schools for local children and maintaining the holy sites. Above all, they imperil the continuation of the Christian presence in Jerusalem.
The closure was announced on Sunday by the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, the Catholic Custos of the Holy Land and the Armenian Patriarch. Their joint statement argues that 'the systematic campaign against the Churches and the Christian community in the Holy Land' has 'reached an unprecedented level as the Jerusalem municipality issued scandalous collection notices and orders of seizure of Church assets, properties and bank accounts for alleged debts of punitive municipal taxes.' The statement also highlights the 'discriminatory and racist bill that targets solely the properties of the Christian community in the Holy Land.'
Both developments come in a period when Christians are suffering an escalating campaign of intimidation from radical settler groups. Churches face daily desecration and vandalism and Christians are regularly subjected to violent assault as they travel to pray. These groups have long used intimidation, bribery and extreme anti-social behaviour in an attempt to force Christians and other non-Jews out of the Holy City. While their actions clearly contravene Israeli law their crimes go largely unchecked.
Today's statement reads as follows:
Statement on Municipal threats and the discriminatory "Church Lands Bill" 25.02.2018
We, the heads of Churches in charge of the Holy Sepulcher and the Status Quo governing the various Christian Holy Sites in Jerusalem - the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, the Custody of the Holy Land and the Armenian Patriarchate - are following with great concern the systematic campaign against the Churches and the Christian community in the Holy Land, in flagrant violation of the existing Status Quo.
Recently, this systematic and offensive campaign has reached an unprecedented level as the Jerusalem municipality issued scandalous collection notices and orders of seizure of Church assets, properties and bank accounts for alleged debts of punitive municipal taxes. A step that is contrary to the historic position of the Churches within the Holy City of Jerusalem and their relationship with the civil authorities. These actions breach existing agreements and international obligations which guarantee the rights and the privileges of the Churches, in what seems as an attempt to weaken the Christian presence in Jerusalem. The greatest victims in this are those impoverished families who will go without food and housing, as well as the children who will be unable to attend school.
The systematic campaign of abuse against Churches and Christians reaches now its peak as a discriminatory and racist bill that targets solely the properties of the Christian community in the Holy Land is being promoted. This abhorrent bill is set to advance today in a meeting of a ministerial committee which if approved would make the expropriation of the lands of churches possible. This reminds us all of laws of a similar nature which were enacted against the Jews during dark periods in Europe.
This systematic and unprecedented attack against Christians in the Holy Land severely violates the most basic, ab antiquo and sovereign rights, trampling on the delicate fabric of relations between the Christian community and the authorities for decades.
THEREFORE, and recalling the Statement of the Patriarchs and Heads of Local Churches in Jerusalem, dated 14 February, 2018 and their previous statement of September 2017, as a measure of protest, we decided to take this unprecedented step of closure of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Together with all Heads of Churches in the Holy Land we stand united, firm and resolute in protecting our rights and our properties.
May the Holy Spirit answer our prayers and bring a resolution to this historic Crisis in our Holy City.
THEOPHILOS III, Patriarch of Jerusalem
FRANCESCO PATTON, Custos of the Holy Land
NOURHAN MANOUGIAN, Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem
For further information, please contact Dr Russell Rook of the Good Faith Partnership on:
+44 7595 607 903.
Further information on the actions of the Jerusalem Municipality
In early 2018, the Municipality announced that it would start collecting property tax from church-owned properties. As well as hotels and businesses, the targeted properties include residences for the community including those within monasteries, community centres, schools and clinics. These properties are central to the churches' work in the community and provide vital income for the community services that churches provide for residents. Further, the Municipality is seeking to force the churches to pay these taxes retroactively. In response to their protest that these taxes are unlawful and unjust, the Municipality has charged assets and properties of churches as well as the bank accounts of some churches.
Further information on the Bill of Church Lands
This bill was first proposed by Rachel Azaria, a member of the Knesset for Kulanu. She was previously deputy mayor of Jerusalem. The bill had been signed by 40 members (one third of the Knesset) and was first submitted to the Chairman of the Knesset and the Deputies of the Chairman and presented to the Knesset on the 26 July, 2017.
Crucially, the bill gives the state the right to confiscate Churches' land, if such land has attached to it leasehold rights and the Church awards any rights, on such lands, to any party that is not a party of the original leasehold. The bill has been referred to a committee headed by Justice Minister, Ayelet Shaked. Shaked is a member of the 'Jewish Home' party. That committee is due to meet today Sunday to consider advancing the bill.
Further information on the activity of radical settler groups
These groups seek to coerce residents in the Muslim and Christian quarters of the Old City of Jerusalem to leave. They have a long track record of extreme anti-social behaviour, including desecration and vandalism of Christian property and holy sites, physical and verbal assault of Christians and Christian clergy and intimidation of non-Jews.
The Haaretz journalist Nir Hasson has uncovered evidence of the chairman of Ateret Cohanim use of various underhanded tactics including offering prostitutes to Palestinian property owners to encourage them to transfer their property to the group. Hasson found recordings of the group threatening owners that they will publicise the negotiations unless owners comply with the settler group. Hasson writes that such publicity would endanger an owner's life. The recordings demonstrate that these settlers often work through intermediaries to hide their involvement. They even offer to help the sellers with unresolved issues with the Israel Tax Authority or the Jerusalem Municipality
The Jaffa Gate case
The case of the properties around the Jaffa Gate stands as a particularly worrying example of the actions of these settler groups. In 2004, a rogue employee of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem signed over long term leases for three properties to one of these groups, Ateret Cohanim. The employee, Nikolas Papadimas had been given a power of attorney by then-Patriarch Irenaios, who denied giving the power of attorney for this purpose and claimed that Papadimas had made him sign a version that he did not approve. The deal was done with no legal representation on the part of the Patriarchate. None of the clergy, including the leadership, in the Patriarchate knew about the deal. The Synod of the Patriarchate was not informed about the deal. No funds were received by the Patriarchate for the properties.
The purported deal awards the settler group a 99 year lease over the properties, with the option to extend for another 99 years. This lease does not affect the rights of the sitting tenants but places the settler group as their landlord. In 2004, the Patriarchate refused to accept the deal. The settler group took the Patriarchate to court to enforce their claimed right. The court battle lasted a decade and the Patriarchate was able to prove: that the employee in question had received a bribe, that there was bad faith, that there was a conspiracy to make this deal and that the agreements lacked due authority from the Patriarchate. Despite this the District Court wrongfully ruled in July of 2017 against the Patriarchate.
Therefore, in the first week of November, the Patriarchate lodged an appeal to the High Court of Justice. Were this appeal to prove unsuccessful, the results would be immensely damaging to the integrity of the Old City. The properties in question are the Imperial Hotel, the Petra Hotel and a small house situated on a small plot of land near Herod's Gate. The hotels are both on "Omar Ibn Al-Khatab" square, the very entrance of the Jaffa Gate and in the heart of the Christian Quarter the seat of all the Patriarchates' and Churches' administration headquarters and less than 500 meters away from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. If the settler group were to gain control of these properties, they would be able to pressure the tenants out of the property. There is the very real potential that they would be aided in this goal by the civic organs of the city of Jerusalem. Once they had forced the tenants out, they would be able to pursue their aggressive campaign of removing non-Jews from the city and from these strategic centres at the heart of the Christian Quarter, threatening the very presence of Christians in the Holy Land.
Hasson's investigation in Haaretz has since demonstrated that Ateret Cohanim lied to the Jerusalem District Court about their evaluation of the value of the properties.