(CNSNews.com) – Palestinian leaders on Sunday seized on a dispute between the Jerusalem municipality and church denominations over unpaid taxes for commercial enterprises, accusing Israel of violating religious freedom and “ethnic cleansing.”
Some sought to link the row to the U.S. decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and relocate its embassy to the city – a move now planned to coincide with Israel’s 70th independence day in May.
Outspoken PLO executive committee member Hanan Ashrawi directed her fire at President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, saying their stance on Jerusalem made them “complicit” in what she charged is a “systematic and egregious campaign” against churches.
Leaders of the three denominations that share the administration of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher shuttered the church on Sunday in protest, and posted a sign reading, “Enough is enough, stop the persecution of churches.”
The rare closure of the site in the Old City, revered by many as a traditional location of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial and resurrection, made headlines around the world.
In fact the tax dispute does not relate to the Holy Sepulcher or any other place of worship, which have long been – and according to Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat will remain – tax-exempt.
The quarrel is over unpaid municipal taxes on properties owned by religious denominations – and the U.N. – that are used for commercial or other non-religious purposes. Barkat described them as “hotels, halls and businesses.”
“The Church of the Holy Sepulcher – as is the case for all of Jerusalem’s churches, synagogues, and mosques – is exempt from municipal taxes,” Barkat said on Sunday. “There is absolutely no change in this regard.”
“But does it make any sense for commercial area that has hotels and shops would be exempt from paying arnona [property tax] just because they are owned by a church?” he asked.
All properties in Israeli cities and towns are subject to the annual municipal tax, although places of worship are exempt.
However, the state has long prevented Jerusalem’s municipality from collecting taxes for church-owned properties that are used for commercial enterprises. Barkat sought expert legal advice and was reportedly advised that not only was the state’s stance incorrect but the municipality was required by law to collect the debts.
Barkat said the city would no longer expect its residents to carry or subsidize the debt, which he put at some $186 million.
A separate issue upsetting the historical denominations relates to the sale by churches, especially the Greek Orthodox Church, of land to private investors over the past eight years.
Thousands of people living in those areas – which were leased last century from the churches, often on 99-year leases – now face uncertainty because when the long-term leases run out the new owners’ plans may not include extending them, thus forcing residents to leave.
An Israeli lawmaker has introduced a bill that would allow the state to expropriate lands sold by the churches to anonymous private real estate companies since 2010, in return for compensation for the investors who had bought the land. A debate on the bill scheduled for Sunday was postponed after the church protest.
Speaking to media in front of the locked doors of the Holy Sepulcher, the Franciscan Custodian, Greek Orthodox patriarch and Armenian patriarch said Israeli authorities had launched a “systematic campaign against the churches and the Christian community in the Holy Land, in flagrant violation of the existing status quo.”
The Muslim-dominated Palestinian Authority was quick to join the protests, calling the tax dispute “a new aggression against Jerusalem, and the Palestinian people and their holy sites.”
P.A. spokesman Yousef Al-Mahmoud called for a prompt international intervention to stop the measures, describing them as “a blatant attack on all agreements and international conventions and norms.”
Ashrawi charged that the Israeli measures were a “further escalation in Israel’s policies to isolate Jerusalem and ethnically cleanse its Palestinian population from the city.”
She said Trump and Pence had directly contributed to the situation.
“Their illegal recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital and moving the U.S. Embassy to the occupied city have rendered them complicit in such an outrageous move.”
The Israeli government says it safeguards the rights and holy sites of Christians, Muslims and Jews alike.