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Christians protest Jerusalem tax bid

01 March 2018

Dozens of disappointed pilgrims gathered outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Monday as it remained closed for the second day in a row.

"As a measure of protest, we chose to take this unprecedented step of closure of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre", the church's Sunday statement said.

Church leaders at The Holy Sepulchre claimed the new rules are an attack on Christians in the Holy Land.

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, who is driving the new taxation law, said that measure is about correcting an imbalance that has unfairly favored the church to the tune of almost $200 million.

The bill looks to enable the state to expropriate all properties the church will agree to lease to private entrepreneurs and not companies recognized by the state.

One, they say, would make it harder for them to sell their land, which they need to do to raise funds. Critics have voiced concern that this would severely hinder the ability of churches to sell land going forward.

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General view of Christian pilgrims in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre as they visit the tomb of Jesus Christ on Easter Sunday, April 4, 1999.

"I had no idea it would be closed. It is not very pleasant".

Since the 16th century, previous successive governments have always exempted Jerusalem's churches from paying taxes. The other time was 20 years ago, when a visitor to the church began taking down crosses and candles, said Nuseibeh.

Jerusalem's church authorities have been vocal against Greek Orthodox Church leaders who were accused of selling land to Israeli settlers in prime locations of the Old City. "I mean, the church is a church and you should be able to go into it no matter what".

Local authorities have already started freezing the churches' assets and informed them about the $186 million in unpaid taxes.

Patriarch Theophilos has traveled to meet world leaders, including Pope Francis, on the legislative issue.

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Jerusalem's municipality argues the tax exemption has been improperly extended to church-owned commercial properties including restaurants and hotels, which don't serve as places of worship.

"We will no longer demand that the citizens of Jerusalem bear this burden and subsidise this colossal debt", Barkat said in a statement, by the mayor's office press service.

The move reportedly follows consultations with Gabriel Hallevy, an Israeli specialist in worldwide law, who believes the tax exemption the Israeli government has long granted should not apply to properties like church-owned hotels, halls and shops that have no overtly religious objective. It is also only one of two Arab countries to have a signed peace treaty with Israel.

The Israeli Christian leaders have received expression of support from Jordanian and Palestinian governments for shutting the doors of a historical Holy Sepulchre church in East Jerusalem in protest of "discriminatory" Israeli policies.

"The Municipality of Jerusalem maintains a good and respectful relationship with all of the churches in the city, and will continue to look after their needs and protect their full religious freedom".

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Christians protest Jerusalem tax bid