Israel’s War on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre forces it to close
Israel’s War on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre forces it to close
From arson to tax – Israel wages
war on the Church
UPDATE: Since this article was written the Israeli authorities have backed down from their attempt to loot the Church of its funds. The embarrassment of the closure proved too much to the Zionist state .
This is not to exonerate the church either though, as it has engaged in property sell offs and speculation at the expense of its own membership
Worshippers locked out of the traditional site of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean
used to be Israel’s proud boast that it guaranteed freedom of religion and
worship. Today, as Israel slides to the
racist Right, this is no longer true.
Churches like the famous Church of the Fish and Loves was subject to arson
2½ years ago. It was one of a number of
such arson attacks that the authorities had turned a blind eye to. The Israeli municipality under Mayor Barkat
has a more sophisticated method of attack – the tax system – which is equally
if not more deadly.
Couple this with the Muezzin
Bill which outlaws the call to prayer for mosques early in the morning and we
see the instrumentalisation of Israel’s chauvinist and racist attitude to other
forms of worship than Judaism.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Sunday closed its doors until
further notice as church leaders angrily retaliated against what they see as a
“systematic campaign” by Israel to harm the Christian community in the Holy
Flanked by Franciscan Custos of the Holy Land Francesco Patton and
Armenian Patriarch Nourhan Manougian, Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilus lll
read out a statement and then locked the ancient doors of the church in
Jerusalem’s Old City.
“We will decide when and how the church will re-open,” he said, likening
Israeli policies to anti-Semitic laws enacted against Jews in Europe.
Believed to be the site where Jesus was crucified, buried and
resurrected, the church localed in Jerusalem’s Old City is considered to
be the holiest site for Orthodox and Catholic Christians. It was last closed
briefly around 20 years ago in protest against Israeli policies.
The immediate trigger was the churches’ discovery that the Knesset’s
Constitution, Law and Justice Committee was to discuss — and in all probability
pass — a bill on Sunday allowing the state to confiscate land sold by the
churches to private investors since 2010 and pay the new owners compensation.
It was also motivated by a recent decision by the Jerusalem Municipality
to freeze churches’ assets until they cough up millions of shekels in what the
city claims are unpaid
“We, the heads of churches in charge of the Holy Sepulchre and the
status quo governing the various Christian holy sites in Jerusalem… are following
with great concern the systematic campaign against the churches and the
Christian community in the Holy Land, in flagrant violation of the existing
status quo,” the patriarch said.
“Recently, this systematic and offensive campaign has reached an unprecedented
level as the Jerusalem Municipality [has] issued scandalous collection notices
and orders of seizure of Church assets, properties and bank accounts for
alleged debts of punitive municipal taxes.
“These actions breach existing agreements and international obligations
which guarantee the rights and the privileges of the churches, in what seems an
attempt to weaken the Christian presence in Jerusalem. The greatest victims in
this are those impoverished families who will go without food and housing, as well
as the children who will be unable to attend school.”
Rachel Azaria takes part in Knesset Finance Committee meeting on November 6,
2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III stands outside the closed doors of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)
The patriarch then lashed out at what he called the “discriminatory and
racist” bill that would confiscate former church land, sponsored by Rachel
Azaria (Kulanu) whose spokesperson said it was supported by a majority of 61
lawmakers from across the political spectrum. The bill, which also has the
backing of the foreign and justice ministries, was expected to be green-lighted
on Sunday afternoon to go on to a preliminary reading in the Knesset plenum.
“This abhorrent bill is set to advance today in a meeting of a
ministerial committee which, if approved, would make the expropriation of the
lands of churches possible.
“This reminds us all of laws of a similar nature which were enacted
against the Jews during dark periods in Europe.”
Azaria says she is seeking to protect hundreds of largely Jerusalem
residents whose homes are located on land which, until recently, was owned and
leased to them by the churches, principally the Greek Orthodox Church — in most
cases under 99-year contracts signed in the 1950’s between the church and the
state, via the Jewish National Fund.
The contracts state that when the leases run out, any buildings on them
will revert back to the church. Residents expected that the leases would be
extended. But in recent years, in order to erase massive debts, the Greek
Orthodox Church has sold vast
swaths of real estate to private investors, and nobody knows whether they
will renew the leases, and if so, under what conditions.
Indicating that the main role of the bill is to get the new landowners
to the negotiating table, Azaria said, “I hope that the buyers will come around
and that we will succeed in arriving at a solution through negotiation and
agreement. If that doesn’t happen, the law will transfer the rights to the land
to the State of Israel.”
The residential buildings in question are located on church-owned land
sold in the Jerusalem neighbourhoods of Givat Oranim (now owned by David Sofer,
a Jewish Israeli businessman living in London and an American billionaire,
Michael Steinhardt, through Oranim Ltd.); Abu Tor (where Sofer owns half a
street, together with another Jewish Englishman, through a company called
Kronty Investments Ltd); and in Talbieh, Rehavia, and Nayot (where Jerusalemite
Noam Ben David has bought up real estate, together with an Australian and an
American now living in Israel, via Nayot Komemiyut Investments).
Kulanu MK Rachel Azaria takes part in Knesset Finance Committee meeting on November 6, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
(C) pictured with wife Cindy (L) at the opening reception of the Jewish Museum
in London on March 16, 2010. (Desmond O’Neill Features Ltd)
For the churches, the bill constitutes an assault on their rights to buy
and sell their one and only resource — investment properties.
David Sofer (C) pictured with wife Cindy (L) at the opening reception of the Jewish Museum in London on March 16, 2010. (Desmond O’Neill Features Ltd)
Over recent months, the Greek Orthodox patriarch, Theophilus III, with
the backing of all the Holy Land churches, has traveled almost nonstop to seek
the international community’s opposition to the move.
He has met with the pope, Russian President Vladimir Putin, the king of
Jordan, the archbishop of Canterbury, and senior political figures in Greece
The church’s protest also comes against a backdrop of other moves
that the churches see as part of an all-out assault on long-running agreements
to preserve the general status quo.
Hotel at the Jaffa Gate, the lease to which was sold to the right-wing Ateret
Cohanim organization and is the subject of an appeal by the Greek Orthodox
Patriarch. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
The Imperial Hotel at the Jaffa Gate, the lease to which was sold to the right-wing Ateret Cohanim organization and is the subject of an appeal by the Greek Orthodox Patriarch. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
These include an Israeli court’s August upholding of what the Greek
Orthodox Church claims was a fraudulent deal carried out in its name to lease
key properties in the Old City’s Christian Quarter to the right-wing Ateret
During the patriarch’s meetings, he also asked for intervention with
Israel over the East Jerusalem lease deal – a deal so explosive that it led to
the sacking of his predecessor. Palestinians see East Jerusalem as their
capital should they reach any future peace agreement with Israel.
Fighting on a third front, the patriarchs and heads of all the main
churches in Jerusalem boycotted
their traditional annual meeting with the mayor and senior municipal staff
10 days ago to protest against bills of millions of shekels in back taxes that
they say they should not be charged.
That dispute revolves around whether tax exemptions for the churches
extend to properties, such as schools and residences, which are not used
directly for worship.
Lawyers for the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate received a notice signed by
a lawyer for the municipality that said a lien had been placed on the church’s
assets due to an unpaid debt of NIS 30.6 million ($8.7 million). The debt was
not explained. Attached was a form on which the lawyers were requested to
detail church assets and to which they were invited to attach a check.
Orthodox Christians call for the ouster of their patriarch, Theophilus lll, for
selling church land to Jews, during the patriarch’s visit to the central city
of Lod, November 16, 2017. The main banner says, “Not worthy.” (Courtesy)
Greek Orthodox Christians call for the ouster of their patriarch, Theophilus lll, for selling church land to Jews, during the patriarch’s visit to the central city of Lod, November 16, 2017. The main banner says, “Not worthy.” (Courtesy)
Over recent months, a group called the Central Orthodox Council, which
furthers an Arab nationalist agenda within the Greek Orthodox Church, has
seized not only on the Old City deals but on all the church’s sales, throughout
Israel, claiming that their church has sold off the family silver to Jews and
alleging that the patriarch is corrupt.
A protest in support of Theophilus, took place a week ago.