Christian leaders shut Jerusalem's Church of Holy Sepulchre in dispute with Israelis
Posted February 26, 2018 5:21 p.m. EST
Updated February 26, 2018 7:42 p.m. EST
JERUSALEM (CNN) — The large wooden doors of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre look more like a dam holding back a flood of pilgrims seeking to glimpse the spot where many Christians believe Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected.
On Sunday, church leaders, in a rare showing of outrage and unity, closed the holy site until their demands are met.
"This reminds us all of laws of a similar nature which were enacted against the Jews during dark periods in Europe. This systematic and unprecedented attack against Christians in the Holy Land severely violates the most basic ... sovereign rights," Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III told journalists in front of the church's door, while flanked by the Catholic Church Custos of the Holy Land Francesco Patton, and Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem Nourhan Manougian.
"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 in the Holy Land is being promoted."
Churches want to sell land
Anger stems from two new proposed laws. One of the proposals, say church leaders, would make it harder for them to sell their land, which they need to do to raise funds.
According to the legislation, during the 19th century churches in the then-Ottoman Empire bought large swaths of land in what is now the western part of Jerusalem. In the early 1950s, the patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church signed three 99-year leases with the Jewish National Fund.
The deal allowed Jerusalem residents to build houses on the land in the belief that the leases would be automatically renewed after they expired.
Since 2010, the churches have sold some of the land to private investors, some of whom are anonymous.
Israeli lawmaker Rachel Azaria says representatives of the investors are going door-to-door telling people in the apartments to pay between $50,000 to $140,000 or risk losing ownership of their homes. She defends the legislation.
"This bill has nothing to do with the church. It's all about the land that was sold by the churches," Azaria said. "We are very happy the churches own the land. We get along with them very, very well. It's all to do with the thousands and thousands of families that are going to lose their homes."
Taxes for buildings not used for worship
The second proposed law that Christian leaders are protesting would see churches starting to pay taxes on buildings that serve as more than just places of worship, like schools or hotels. Church figures say the move breaks a historic agreement between churches within the Holy City of Jerusalem and civil authorities.
"This systematic and offensive campaign has reached an unprecedented level as the Jerusalem municipality issued scandalous collection notices and orders of seizure of church assets, properties and bank accounts for alleged debts of punitive municipal taxes," Theophilos III told journalists.
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, who is driving the new taxation law, said it's about correcting an imbalance that has unfairly favored the church.
He tweeted that the churches owe roughly $186 million in back taxes and added, "We will no longer require Jerusalem's residents to bear or subsidize this huge debt."
He emphasized that there would be no change to Jerusalem's churches, which are exempt from municipal taxes along with synagogues and mosques.
Church leaders might have an ally in Azaria. As a former deputy mayor of Jerusalem, she said she disagrees with Barkat, even going as far as to say that she would be willing to propose a law to stop his move to tax church lands not used for worship.
A vote by the Knesset's ministerial committee, which would have sent the legislation forward for debate on the Knesset floor, was delayed a week on Sunday, to take into account the considerations of the churches. Azaria said she is working actively with the churches to end the crisis.
Meanwhile, pilgrims wait to see holy site
Back at the church, the pilgrims, many of whom traveled thousands of miles, wait and pray.
Lorene Herbert of Florida doesn't agree the church should be closed.
"I think what they are doing is the wrong thing," she said. "I think they are being stubborn about it -- the church is a church and you should be able to go into it no matter what."
But Tom O'Flynn from Kentucky said this should be a case of separation of church and state.
"In general, I support Israel but not in this case. My politics are changing," O'Flynn said. "President Trump tells us we share values [with Israel]. If we indeed share values, let's share values of freedom of religion.
"This thing of taxation of religious properties is really ridiculous."