The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, Christianity’s holiest site, was closed to visitors on Sunday in an unprecedented move to protest proposed Israeli tax and land policies governing church-owned property.

The heads of the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Armenian Apostolic churches in the city released a letter accusing Israel of a “systematic and offensive campaign” against Christians. The Jerusalem municipality plans to tax some church assets for a first time, and cabinet ministers are studying a bill to expropriate land in Jerusalem that churches sold in recent years to anonymous buyers.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Christian tradition holds that Jesus was crucified and buried, stands in Jerusalem’s Old City, captured by Israel during the 1967 Middle East war. The church leaders accused Israel of trying to “weaken the Christian presence in Jerusalem.”

The proposed taxes will not apply to houses of worship, but to other properties the churches own. The Jerusalem municipality said while it will continue to tend to the needs of Jerusalem’s Christians and safeguard their full freedom of worship, church properties such as “hotels, halls and businesses cannot be exempt from municipal taxes simply because they are owned by the churches.”

Rachel Azaria, a parliament member for the Kulanu party who sponsored the government’s land bill, said it was meant to protect people who own homes on leased land the churches have sold since 2010. The homeowners don’t know who their landlords are and are exposed to eviction or significantly higher land leases, said Azaria, a former deputy mayor of Jerusalem. Landholders would be compensated, she said.

“I understand that the Church is being pressured, but their lands remain theirs, no one has any interest in touching them,” she said. Cabinet ministers were scheduled on Sunday to discuss the bill, but postponed it for a week because of the uproar, her office said.

The Greek Orthodox Church is one of the biggest landowners in Israel and the Palestinian territories, and its quiet sale of land to anonymous investors in recent years has attracted controversy.

 

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Photo Credit: Holy Sepulchre Church in Jerusalem shut down for one day on February 25, 2018 in a tax dispute with Israeli authorities. The photo is from December 1, 2008. Randall Niles / Flickr