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Church of the Holy Sepulchre reopens after 3-day protest of Israeli policies

Feb. 28, 2018 3:57 P.M. (Updated: March 1, 2018 2:19 P.M.)
JERUSALEM (Ma’an) -- The gates of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in occupied East Jerusalem were reopened on Wednesday at dawn after a three-day closure in protest of Israeli policies that church leaders said were aimed at weakening the Christian presence in Jerusalem.

Christian leaders had decided to close the doors to the church in protest of several Israeli policies, including a newly-proposed bill that would allow the Israeli state to take over church properties leased to private companies.

The Israeli government alleged that the bill would protect homeowners against the possibility that private companies will not extend their leases.

The churches, however, said the law would make it harder for them to find buyers for their land and enable confiscation of their land, expressing fears that the land would be expropriated to Jewish settlers.

Leaders also expressed their disapproval of plans by the Israeli government to begin imposing taxes on church properties.

On Tuesday, the office of Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, announced the government’s decision to suspend legislation regarding collecting taxes from churches and their properties.

In a statement, Netanyahu said a "professional team" would be appointed to come up with a solution to the tax measures which sparked the protest.

"As a result, the Jerusalem municipality is suspending the collection actions it has taken in recent weeks," the statement said.

One of the outspoken critics of Israel’s proposed policies was the Greek Orthodox Church Patriarch of Jerusalem, Theophilos III, who is accused of orchestrating the sale of more than 500 dunams (123.5 acres) of Palestinian land belonging to the Arab Orthodox Church in Jerusalem to Israeli entrepreneurs belonging to Zionist and settler groups.

The church has been accused numerous times over the years of selling its leasing rights over land in Jerusalem to Jewish Israeli investors, with Israeli financial newspaper Calcalist revealing late last month that the Orthodox Patriarchate had sold the rights to 500 dunams in August 2016 for 114 million shekels ($32 million), a move to be effective in 2050, when the Jewish National Fund’s lease of the land is set to expire.

Detractors have accused the patriarchate of contributing to Israeli plans to “Judaize” Jerusalem by selling or leasing off large amounts of land to Israeli authorities and businesspeople, betraying the church’s responsibility to protect Palestinian lands that were handed under its care during the Ottoman period.

In 2015, a patriarchate spokesperson denied to Ma’an that the church was selling off lands in Jerusalem -- a claim that did not convince many members of the faith at the time.

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