(CNSNews.com) -- Christian leaders in Jerusalem have strongly denounced proposals by the Israeli government to start taxing church properties and seizing church assets as a "campaign of abuse against Churches and Christians" that seems designed "to weaken the Christian presence in Jerusalem,” said the leaders in a Feb. 25 statement.
This opposition to Israel’s plans by the Christian archbishops and patriarchs in Jerusalem is also being supported by Christian leaders in America, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Armenian Church, and the Episcopal Church.
The Israeli government had approved the measure to tax the church properties -- not the churches themselves -- but backed down on Feb. 27 after facing strong opposition from the Christian churches.
Israel then "suspended" its plans and set up a committee to negotiate with the church leaders to "formulate a solution," said the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as reported by U.S. News.
The taxes would apply to church "properties," such as schools, hospitals, pilgrimage hotels and services, a variety of entities that the churches use to fulfill their mission. Allowing these properties to operate tax-free has been the negotiated situation in Jerusalem for many years. It is part of what is called the Status Quo, an understanding among the various faiths -- Christianity, Islam, Judaism -- about the ownership, management, and use of nine shared religious sites in Jerusalem.
In their Feb. 25 statement, the Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III (Orthodox Church), the Custos of the Holy Land Francesco Patton (Catholic Church), and the Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem Nourham Manougian, said they were "following with great concern the systematic campaign against the Churches and the Christian community in the Holy Land, in flagrant violation of the existing Status Quo."
"Recently, 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," said the church leaders.
"These actions breach existing agreements and international obligations which guarantee the rights and the privileges of the Churches, in what seems as an attempt to weaken the Christian presence in Jerusalem."
"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," said the Christian patriarchs.
"This abhorrent bill is set to advance today in a meeting of a ministerial committee which, if approved, would make the expropriation of the lands of churches possible."
"This reminds us all of laws of a similar nature which were enacted against the Jews during dark periods in Europe," said the church leaders.
They continued, "This systematic and unprecedented attack against Christians in the Holy Land severely violates the most basic, ab antiquo and sovereign rights, trampling on the delicate fabric of relations between the Christian community and the authorities for decades."
The proposal that apparently could lead to the expropriation of church lands was also suspended and is pending review by the special committee, a body that will be headed by Tzachi Hanegbi, the Israeli minister of regional cooperation.
"The team will negotiate with the representatives of the churches to resolve the issue," said a statement from Netanyahu's office, as reported by U.S. News. The mayor of Jerusalem claims the church properties owe $180 million in back taxes.
In two earlier statments -- one from Feb. 14, 2018 and one from Sept. 6, 2017 -- the 12 Patriarches and Heads of Churches in Jerusalem denounced efforts to breach the Status Quo "that governs the Holy Sites and ensures the rights and privileges of the Churches."
"In such matters as this, the Heads of the Churches are resolute and united in our opposition to any action by any authority or group that undermines those laws, agreements, and regulations that have ordered our life for centuries," they said.
"We see in these actions a systematic attempt to undermine the integrity of the Holy City of Jerusalem and the Holy Land, and to weaken the Christian presence," said the patriarchs. "We affirm in the clearest possible terms that a vital, vibrant Christian community is an essential element in the make-up of our diverse society, and threats to the Christian community can only increase the troubling tensions that have emerged in these turbulent times."
"[We] call upon our fellow Church leaders and faithful around the world, as well as the heads of governments, and all people of good will, to support us in order to ensure that no further attempts are made from any quarter to change the historical Status Quo and its provisions and spirit," said the church leaders.
On March 13, 2018, leaders of four major churches in the United States, including Archbishop Daniel Cardinal DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, sent a letter to the Jerusalem Patriarchate, the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem, and the Custos of the Holy Land. In the letter, the Americans expressed their support for the Christian churches in Jerusalem and their opposition to the Israeli plans.
"We affirm your protest against the recent efforts to confiscate church lands or tax church properties whose function is integral to the churches’ mission," said the U.S. church leaders. "These efforts contravene the historic Status Quo that has prevailed in Jerusalem for centuries."
"We note with grave concern that the ability of a number of the churches to continue their important activities already has been impaired or even halted by tax liens against several of their bank accounts," they said. "These acts stifle the immediate work of the church as well as create a long-term situation that threatens the very existence of the Christian community in the Holy Land."
"We join you in advocating strongly against these proposals," they said. "We will continue to press the Israeli government on your behalf."
That letter was signed by Rev. Elizabeth A. Eaton, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; Archbishop Vicken Aykazian, ecumenical director and legate for the Diocese of the Armenian Church in America; Cardinal Archbishop Daniel DiNardo, president of the USCCB; and Most Rev. Michael B. Curry, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church.
Those same four church leaders sent another letter on March 13 to Prime Minister Netanyahu and to the Mayor of Jerusalem.
“As heads of churches and communions in the United States, we write to express our strong concern about recent legal proposals and tax plans that would severely inhibit the work of the churches in and around Jerusalem," reads the letter.
"If enacted, these measures would have the effect of creating a situation that jeopardizes the very survival of the Christian community in the Holy Land." (Emphasis added.)
“We have expressed to the Patriarchs and Heads of Churches in Jerusalem, in the enclosed letter, our firm solidarity with them during this crisis, including by strong advocacy before our own government," said the four church leaders.
“We know of the myriad activities in which the churches there are engaged, such as education, health care and pilgrimages, and we recognize that they are integral to the churches’ mission and of major benefit to the Jerusalem community beyond the churches," they wrote.
“We ask that you end measures that disrupt the Status Quo," they said. "We have pledged to the church leaders in Jerusalem our unwavering support for all peaceful and lawful measures they may pursue to ensure the preservation and flourishing of the Christian community now and in the future."
The special committee's review of the tax proposal is currently underway.