The above quote from a harshly worded statement — suggesting that Israel has instituted abusive measures against churches and Christians in Israel reminiscent of Nazi-era anti-Jewish laws — was issued late last month by heads of the three principal historic churches in Jerusalem — Greek Orthodox, Catholic and Armenian — that claim to be the legitimate caretakers of Jerusalem’s Old City Church of the Holy Sepulcher (Christianity’s holiest site).
It came after two unrelated steps were taken simultaneously by the Jerusalem municipality and by Knesset member Rachel Azaria (from the coalition member Kulanu party) to start collecting property tax on church-owned properties and to allow the government to exercise its right of eminent domain on some real estate properties sold by the Church to private investors. The statement went on to accuse Israel of “intimidating Christians and discriminating against churches in the Holy Land…critically undermine[ing] the ability of the churches to carry out their pastoral mission.”
To ensure that their infuriation at what they described was “actions [that] contravene the long-held Status Quo which is foundational to the guarantee of the churches’ rights and privileges in the Holy Land” was not ignored, Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III, the Catholic Custos of the Holy Land Francesco Patton and Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem Nourhan Manougian blocked all entry to the Holy Sepulcher on Feb. 25 — an unprecedented step in modern history. Israeli government officials dealing with the churches on a daily basis were outraged at the curtailing of access to the holy site during Lent, preventing thousands of foreign Christian pilgrims from exercising the rights of religious freedom and free access on which Israel prides itself.
The crisis that threatened to wreck relations between Israel and the historic churches and beyond was averted three days later when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu intervened. Netanyahu announced the formation of an interministerial team led by the minister of Justice to formulate a solution to the land question and another, led by Minister of Regional Cooperation Tzachi Hanegbi with representatives of the Ministries of Finance, Foreign Affairs, Interior and the Jerusalem Municipality to formulate a solution to the municipal taxes issue. The taxation and legislation were suspended while the teams deliberate; the church leaders publicly thanked the prime minister for his intervention and reopened the Church.
But the hesitation by the Israeli government in confronting the looming conflict with the churches allowed Hamas and pro-Palestinian Christians within the churches to cynically use the crisis to call for an Intifada, claiming that just as Israel allegedly attempted to take over Temple Mount and eradicate Muslims, the Jewish state now seeks to expel Christians, adding that Zionist Jews are waging war against anyone who is not Jewish.
As explained by experts in Church-Israel relations, the crisis provided ample opportunity for publicity and political wrangling in an emotionally-charged atmosphere as pro-Palestinian element in the churches seek to wrestle control of these strategically-positioned institutions and use them to open another front against the State of Israel.
Examining more closely the measure implemented by outgoing Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, the Jerusalem Municipality was fully within its mandate to apply municipal taxes to Church-owned properties that are not actual houses of worship (which are completely exempt while hospitals, orphanages and other charities are assessed a nominal fee). Rather, Barkat sought to augment the city’s income by assessing municipal taxes to the many stores, commercial zones, hotels and other business properties owned by the churches. Acting on a legal opinion that found that the municipality had no authority to exempt commercial church-owned property from municipal taxes despite the practice of doing so, dating back at least to the Ottoman period, Barkat estimated the debt rung up by the churches over time at $200 million.
Barkat — who just announced that he will not run for reelection after serving ten years as mayor but will rather seek Knesset membership on the Likud list — has invested considerably in building and maintaining cordial relations with more than 15 diverse Christian communities active in the city. Some commentators described his decision to tax the Churches now as “nothing more than a badly-timed publicity stunt” aimed at squeezing the government to allocate additional funds to the city coffers that are overextended because two large segments of the population (the ultra-Orthodox Jews and Arabs) contribute proportionally less to the budget than the general population.
The other measure that raised the ire of the churches — Azaria’s private draft legislation — would have, in principal, annulled any sale by the churches of real estate leased decades ago to the Jewish National Fund and on which residential buildings had been built, giving Israel an option to purchase the property instead and thereby preserving the investments of some 8,000 residents in some of western (Jewish) Jerusalem’s iconic neighborhoods such as Rehavia and Talbiyeh.
Although the proposal was in the very first stages of the legislative process and the churches had received assurances from government representatives that it would not allow it pass into law, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch launched an international campaign of meetings with international figures — including Russian President Vladimir Putin and Pope Francis — in which he accused Israel of persecuting Christians.
Analysts believe that Theophilos launched this campaign in an effort to fend off allegations that he, like his predecessor Irenaios I, was party to divesting church properties to “Zionists” (Irenaios was unseated in 2005 after he was accused of selling strategic church property to Israeli developers). Still, accusing Israel of “racism” against the Church and utilizing the doomsday countermeasure of closing the Church of the Holy Sepulcher over an economic dispute with Israel — and not in response to more immediate threats against Christian communities in the Palestinian Authority and the Muslim world – seemed cynical to many observers.
Be that as it may, this public friction with the historic churches in Jerusalem comes at an inopportune time. For one, tourism — including Christian pilgrimage that accounts for over half of foreign visitors to Israel — is at an all-time high, but could flounder if Israel is perceived as being hostile toward Christians, hurting Jerusalem’s income as a result. Furthermore, as Christianity is now widely recognized as the most persecuted religion in the world at the hand of Muslim extremists, Israel would be wise not to allow itself to be boxed into that same corner.
Israeli authorities should take the breathing space provided by the current hiatus to establish a formal policy on state-Church relations, taking into consideration the fact that these are not local issues to be determined by the whims of mayors or private MK bills, but matters that affect the image of Israel, particularly among Christianity’s 2.2 billion adherents. At the same time, Israeli officials should not hesitate to respond stridently when Church leaders stoop to incitement and even to groundless Holocaust allusions. If not, the next crisis could be looming close by.