Jerusalem’s Coptic Church has shut its doors in protest of increased taxation and proposed legislation targeting the churches’ commercial activities from the city’s government, reports the Washington Post. On February 24, the leaders of the city’s major Christian sects announced that they would be closing the church of the Holy Sepulchre for the afternoon.
Christian establishments and the Israeli government have always maintained tense relations. This strained relationship is compounded by the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, as the majority of Christians in Israel are Palestinian, reports the Washington Post. The municipal government exacerbated these relations with its plans to tax Christian churches’ assets around the city, as well as to seek a bill that would allow the municipality to expropriate land sold by the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches. According to the Jerusalem and Middle East Church Association, the churches issued a joint statement claiming to be unjustly targeted by the Israeli government in a “systematic campaign of abuse.”
As reported by the Jerusalem Post, the Jerusalem municipality says that it deeply cares about and is dedicated to ensuring the Christians’ freedom to worship, but that “hotels, halls and businesses cannot be exempt from municipal taxes simply because they are owned by the churches.”
The city of Jerusalem is in desperate need of funding for municipal necessities, such as government-employed sanitation crews. The Jerusalem Post reports that the lack of proper financing from Israel’s central government to Jerusalem threatens to potentially put 2000 municipal employees out of work. Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat has demanded that Israel’s Ministry of Finance allocate more funding to his city. Jerusalem is one of Israel’s largest, yet poorest metropoles.
Tax squabbles between the local Christian community and the Jewish State have been happening for years. The Vatican and Israel have been conducting sporadic negotiations in an effort to reach an accord on Catholic properties. In 1993, a Fundamental Agreement between the Holy See and Israel was ratified; both parties are hoping to renegotiate and revise the document sometime this year.
Some see Jerusalem’s threat to tax church property as intended to further pressure the country’s finance ministry to distribute funds. The Christian churches of Jerusalem would benefit from such an empty threat. According to a report by the Israel Hayom newspaper, the Catholic church would have to foot an already outstanding tax bill of over $3.3 million, and the Anglican Church has also accumulated a debt of over $2.5 million.
According to the Jerusalem Post, the churches reopened after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued an apology and promised that Jerusalem would not pursue its taxation plan.