Leaders of the two largest Christian denominations in Jerusalem on Monday said the Church of the Holy Sepulchre will remain closed indefinitely to protest an Israeli attempt to tax their properties in the holy city, shuttering one of Jerusalem’s most venerable and popular holy sites.
Both Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic representatives said they were blindsided by the Jerusalem municipality’s recent decision to begin taxing them and accused the mayor, Nir Barkat, of disrupting a longstanding and fragile status quo.
Anna Koulouris, an official in the chief secretariat’s office of the Greek Patriarchate, said that all major Christian denominations were united in their opposition to the Israeli move.
“They are serious,” she said. “They really want to see something change before they think about reopening the doors.”
The church, situated in Jerusalem’s Old City, is one of Christianity’s holiest sites, revered as the spot where Jesus was crucified and resurrected. It is a popular destination for tourists and Christian pilgrims from around the world.
Barkat has said the order does not affect houses of worship, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and only applies to what he calls “commercial properties” owned by the churches, including hotels and office space. He said the churches have debts of roughly $185 million.
“We will no longer require Jerusalem’s residents to bear or subsidize this huge debt,” he said in a statement. He claimed Jerusalem has a “good and respectful relationship” with all churches in the city.
But church representatives said Barkat’s hasty move threatened that relationship and that the sudden taxes would jeopardize schools, health clinics and other vital services for their local flocks.
Both Koulouris and Farid Jubran, a legal adviser to the Roman Catholic Church’s custodian of holy sites, said the churches were never formally notified of Barkat’s decision and learned of it through the media.
Both officials said they do not know how the city even calculated their debts or decided which buildings to tax.
“We’re talking about land with spiritual significance to people,” Koulouris said. “Where do you draw the line?”
“It absolutely took us by surprise,” he said. “We wake up one morning and find the municipality took unilateral action without previous notice.”