Earlier this week, one of the most holy churches in the world closed its doors in response to the Israeli government’s proposed tax plans and land expropriation bill. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre described the legislation as a “systemic and unprecedented attack against Christians in the Holy Land.”
Jerusalem is a city located on a plateau in the Judaean Mountains between the Mediterranean and the Dead Sea. It is considered to be one of the holiest sites by millions of people across the world (including Christians, Muslims, and Jews). Israelis and Palestinians both claim Jerusalem as their capital. So far, neither claim is widely recognized internationally.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, also known as the Church of Resurrection or the Church of the Anastasis, is one of the holiest sites in Christendom. Located in the Christian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, the physical structure is thought to date back to the 4thCentury CE. Followers of Christianity believe that it is the site where Jesus Christ was crucified, buried, and resurrected.
The church was consecrated by Emperor Constantine in 335 CE. However, this structure was destroyed over the latter half of the millennium, from 600-1010 CE, first by the Persian invasion, and later on the orders of Caliph Hakim. Reconstruction began a few decades later, when the new caliphs allowed rebuilding efforts to begin. It was in 1099 that the First Crusaders captured the site and the church went through a period of rebirth.
Over the next few centuries, the church saw repeated disputes over ownership. With the start of the 1948 Palestine war, Israeli Christians’ access to the church was cut off. This continued until the Six-Day war of 1967 and the decisive Israeli victory, during which Israeli forces captured East Jerusalem and the Old City. The church and other holy places are protected by the Protection of Holy Places Law, passed by the Knesset in 1967.
The United Nations and a large proportion of the international community consider East Jerusalem to be occupied Palestinian territory. Today, the church is controlled by a number of Christian denominations. The six main denominations are Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Egyptian Copts, Syriacs, and Ethiopians.
On the 25th of February, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre announced temporary closure. This was in protest of newly proposed Israeli legislature. The legislature included a tax policy under which churches would owe the state up $180 million in back-tax, and a land expropriation bill. The properties that would be taxed include commercial ventures such as hotels and offices. Nir Barkat, the Israeli mayor of Jerusalem clarified, “we are not talking about houses of worship, who will still be exempt from property tax, according to law.”
The land bill would allow the state to appropriate land sold by the church to private parties. Churches own large amounts of property in the city and rely heavily on the funds provided by these properties to maintain their institutions.
Religious heads described the bill as “abhorrent”. “The systematic campaign of abuse against Churches and Christians reaches now its peak as a discriminatory and racist bill that targets solely the properties of the Christian community," said a statement by the church on Sunday. “This reminds us all of laws of a similar nature, which were enacted against the Jews during dark periods in Europe.”
Other institutions such as the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) expressed support. The OIC claimed that these measures were “part of ongoing efforts to change the status of Christian and Muslim holy places [in Jerusalem] and systematically restrict their existence."
On Tuesday, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu announced the creation of a committee to discuss the issue further, and the suspension of both pieces of legislation until the discussion took place. This announcement is likely to have come after international scrutiny on the issue, and criticism from Palestine and Jordan.
“Israel is proud to be the only country in the Middle East where Christians and believers of all faiths have full freedom of religion and worship,” the statement from Netanyahu’s office read. “Israel is home to a flourishing Christian community and welcomes its Christian friends from all over the world.”
The church consequently expressed its gratitude and signalled its willingness to engage with the council. They promised to reopen their doors on Wednesday.
Our assessment is that Prime Minister Netanyahu is keen to avoid conflict in the contested city of Jerusalem. Last year, the city saw violence after Trump recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. This issue has demonstrated the suspicion with which various religious organisations and Arab nations view Israel’s actions. As stated previously, we believe that it is necessary to create an atmosphere where Israel and Palestine can reach a Two State solution.