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Israel: Jerusalem suspends plan to tax church properties

The doors of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre were closed for three days.

(Photo: Saint George’s College Jerusalem)

(Staff)  JERUSALEM’S MAYOR had to drop a plan to collect back taxes from Christian churches in his city when angry religious leaders closed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Feb. 25th in protest.

The church has been a major Christian pilgrimage destination since its creation in the fourth century and is revered as the site where Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected. Its closure was just ahead of the visit of thousands of pilgrims at Easter.

Mayor Nir Barak felt his municipality was badly underfunded and so, without consultation, arbitrarily declared that he would end the tax exemption for church properties in Jerusalem. Places of worship would remain un-taxed but pilgrim guest houses and restaurants and church offices would no longer be exempt. Without warning, churches were told they owed some 650 million shekels ($240 million Canadian). Barak froze the bank accounts of some churches overnight, making it difficult to pay their employees. In Jerusalem, the local Christians are predominately Arab.

“As the mayor of the city of Jerusalem, my goal and role is to make sure people pay their taxes,” Barkat said in an interview. “We have no negative or bad intentions here.”

Three days later Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office stepped in and issued a statement saying a professional team was being established to negotiate with church officials to “formulate a solution.” Furthermore, “As a result, the Jerusalem Municipality is suspending the collection actions it has taken in recent weeks.”

Church properties in Jerusalem have been tax-exempt not only under the modern state of Israel but also under the previous British Mandate and even under the earlier Ottoman Empire stretching back 500 years.   TAP

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