Bank accounts belonging to the Anglican diocese in Jerusalem remain frozen with a tax demand still outstanding, despite an announcement that the controversial new municipal taxes would be put on hold. Greek Orthodox, Catholic and Armenian leaders closed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre last week as tensions rose over the controversial tax introduced by the Mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat. The doors were opened this morning after a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that he had set up a task force to negotiate a solution with the churches.
Also at issue was a proposed law that would have allowed the Israeli government to retroactively seize land sold by churches. The Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, Theophilos III, travelled extensively last year raising awareness of the issue, winning the support of Christian leaders including Pope Francis and the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Prime Minister’s spokesman said yesterday that both this legislation and the new Jerusalem Municipality tax would be put on hold.
The conflict reached crisis point when Patriarch Theophilos, Roman Catholic Custos Francesco Patton, and Armenian Patriarch Nourhan Manougian, announced that the doors to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – revered by many Christians as the site of the crucifixion, burial and resurrection of Jesus – would remain closed to tourists and pilgrims until the situation was resolved.
This week, the Ministerial Committee for Legislation – a statutory body which scrutinises legislation – was due to consider the draft law on Church land sales. However, in a statement, an Israeli government spokesman said that this would form part of discussions between church leaders and a new professional team led by Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi set up to “formulate a solution.” The team will include representatives of the Ministries of Finance, Foreign Affairs and the Interior and the Jerusalem Municipality. “The team will negotiate with the representatives of the churches to resolve the issue,” the spokesman said.
“As a result, the Jerusalem Municipality is suspending the collection actions it has taken in recent weeks.
“In addition, following a request by the heads of the churches to enter negotiations regarding the sale of land in Jerusalem, Prime Minister Netanyahu has asked Minister Hanegbi to examine the issue. While the Minister is doing so, all legislative activity on the matter will be suspended.”
The spokesman added: “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. Israel is home to a flourishing Christian community and welcomes its Christian friends from all over the world.”
The Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Michael Jackson, whose United Dioceses of Dublin and Glendalough share a companion link with the Diocese of Jerusalem, has written a prayer about the current situation:
Almighty God and Father,
we pray today and all days for the peace of Jerusalem
and for the prosperity in body, mind and spirit
of those who love you in The Land of The Holy One
and across the world.
We seek your guiding hand for those who, as Living Stones, today
tend the Holy Places and sustain caring agencies of healthcare and education
in all Christian traditions.
We rejoice that, through this ministry of service and response, the commandment
to love your neighbour as yourself is lived out day by day.
We pray for a just resolution of the current problems
experienced by all your children in the city of Jerusalem.
This prayer we offer in the name of Jesus Christ the Healer
and the Holy Spirit the Comforter.