Israel froze a bill on Tuesday that would allow it to expropriate land sold by the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches to private developers, and postponed the collection of taxes from church-owned properties and United Nations institutions in Jerusalem.
Israel’s about-face comes after hundreds of Palestinians protested the measures and church leaders closed the doors of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem – one of Christianity’s most revered sites which according to tradition marks the place where Jesus was crucified.
The church closed for three days but announced that it will reopen its doors on 28 February following Israel’s climbdown.
Earlier this month, Israeli authorities in Jerusalem moved to collect $186 million from 887 properties in the city belonging to churches and UN agencies by freezing their bank accounts.
Church leaders said Nir Barkat, the Israeli mayor of Jerusalem, was violating international treaties that exempt churches from state taxes.
The Israeli municipality has already seized approximately $3 million from the Catholic church, $2 million from the Anglican church, $500,000 from the Armenian church and $161,000 from the Greek Orthodox church.
The heads of the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic and the Armenian churches – all three responsible for the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – released a statement on 25 February condemning Israel’s tax-collection bill and its efforts to change the status quo in the city.
“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,” they stated.
“This reminds us all of laws of a similar nature which were enacted against the Jews during dark periods in Europe.”
The denomination leaders call Israel’s actions a “systemic campaign of abuse” against Palestinian Christians and churches now reaching its peak with this “discriminatory and racist bill.”
The church hung a protest banner saying “Enough is Enough” with pictures of Israeli mayor Barkat and Rachel Azaria, a member of the Israeli parliament, identifying them as the two main instigators of Israel’s campaign against the Christian community.
What worried church leaders the most, according to Israeli newspaper Haaretz, was a measure sponsored by Azaria that would allow Israel to expropriate the lands sold by churches to private developers.
“A relevant question is what Israel would say if such a move was taken in another country for synagogue-owned property,” Haaretz reported.
The bill was set to be discussed by Israel’s cabinet on Sunday but was postponed following the church’s closure.
But the churches’ ability to freely sell land is not necessarily in the interests of the Christian community or Palestinians more generally.
In October, Haaretz reported on a number of cases brought to light in recent months where the Greek Orthodox church sold land and assets at unreasonably low prices on the pretext of having debts to pay.
In most land sales and leases agreed by the church, the buyers are foreigners and their identities anonymous, protected by tax shelters.
Haaretz also found a series of suspicious land sales conducted seven years ago, where the buyer in all cases was a private company called Koronetti, the tax returns of which are registered in the Virgin Islands.
Ateret Cohanim, a right-wing Israeli organization involved in Jewish settlement on Palestinian land in Jerusalem, was also one of the buyers of church land more than a decade ago.
The Greek Orthodox church has subsequently taken over the site but Ateret Cohanim is now trying to seize the land that it bought in 2004.
Leased to Jewish settlement
These sales actively pave the way for new waves of Israeli settlement in Jerusalem.
That is the fear in the case of Abu Tor, a neighborhood south of Jerusalem’s Old City that straddles the so-called Green Line boundary between western Jerusalem on one side and occupied East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank on the other.
Abu Tor, also known as the Hill of Evil Counsel, has tremendous religious and environmental significance.
It is according to tradition the place where Judas agreed with Jewish high priests to betray Jesus to the Romans.
The land was sold for approximately $9 million by Jerusalem’s Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III.
The buyers, unusually identified in this case, are American hedge fund manager Michael Steinhardt, a major donor and co-founder of Birthright Israel – the program that doles out free trips to Israel in an attempt to foster Zionist commitment and eventual emigration by young American Jews – and his partner David Sofer, a London-based Israeli financier.
According to Steinhardt, there “was no Palestinian people.”
The proposal to build dozens of luxury apartments over this historical site has drawn staunch opposition from local communities.
“The complex is adjacent to the Green Line, with Palestinian families living on the other side,” according to Haaretz.
But those Palestinian families fear that the next step will be that Israel will expropriate their land on the pretext of widening roads.
The larger Palestinian Christian community is alarmed by the Greek Orthodox church’s free reign to sell off to undisclosed buyers land that is central to their identity and faith tradition.
Many have mobilized to protest these dealings.
Israeli politicians are also threatening to confiscate the land before it falls “into the hands of private developers,” according to Haaretz.
The Greek Orthodox church claims to be one of the largest landowners in historic Palestine.
- Church of the Holy Sepulchre
- Greek Orthodox church
- Green Line
- Michael Steinhardt
- David Sofer
- Abu Tor
- Ateret Cohanim
- Nir Barkat
- Rachel Azaria
- Roman Catholic church
- Anglican church
- Armenian church
- church activism
- East Jerusalem
- West Jerusalem
- Patriarch Theophilos III
- Palestinian Christians