Israel backs down in tax row with Christian leaders in Jerusalem
JERUSALEM: Israel on Tuesday suspended a tax plan and proposed property legislation that had prompted the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to be closed in protest since Sunday.
After receiving a statement from the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian clergy were considering next steps, including reopening the church, Wadie Abunassar, an adviser to church leaders said.
An Israeli committee led by a Cabinet minister will negotiate with church representatives to try to resolve the dispute over plans to tax church-owned commercial property in Jerusalem, Netanyahu’s office said.
“The Jerusalem Municipality is suspending the (tax) collection actions it has taken in recent weeks,” the statement said. Mayor Nir Barkat has said the churches owed the city more than $180 million in property tax from their commercial holdings.
Church leaders, in closing the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, said church-owned businesses, which include a hotel and office space in Jerusalem, had enjoyed a tax exemption.
While the review is underway, work on legislation that would allow Israel to expropriate land in Jerusalem that churches have sold to private real estate firms in recent years will also be suspended, the statement from Netanyahu’s office said.
The declared aim of the bill, deemed “abhorrent” in a statement issued by church leaders, is to protect homeowners against the possibility that private companies will not extend their leases of land on which their houses or apartments stand.
The churches are major landowners in Jerusalem. They say such a law would make it harder for them to find buyers for churchowned land — sales that help to cover operating costs of their religious institutions.
Jerusalem’s mayor backed away on Tuesday from a move that had enraged religious leaders and led to the closure of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. (AP)