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Jerusalem churches urge Netanyahu to block property legislation

Oct. 21, 2018 1:22 P.M. (Updated: Oct. 22, 2018 2:52 P.M.)
JERUSALEM (Ma'an) -- The heads of the Roman Catholic, Armenian, and Greek Orthodox churches in Jerusalem called on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to block draft legislation, which is reportedly aimed at expropriating their property.

The heads of the three major churches in Jerusalem wrote a letter to Netanyahu, condemning the bill as "disgraceful."

They wrote that its inclusion on the agenda of an Israeli government committee meeting scheduled for Sunday reneged on previous assurances by Netanyahu himself to withdraw the bill.

"We were astonished to realize that this disgraceful bill was listed on the agenda of the ministerial committee for legislation this coming Sunday."

Swathes of Jerusalem are held by various churches, in many cases under long-term leases from the state. The churches then sublet the properties on the commercial market.

In February, the Jerusalem municipality began enforcing tax collection on church property, excluding places of worship.

In addition, the Israeli Knesset was also drafting a legislation, which would allow Israel to intervene in the resale of leases to commercial property developers.

The religious leaders of the churches protested against the legislation by closing the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site in Jerusalem where Jesus is believed to have been crucified, buried, and resurrected, for three days.

The three-day closure left thousands of pilgrims and tourists seeking to visit the holy site, in order to protest the “Jerusalem municipality’s efforts to charge churches back taxes on properties not used for worship, as well as draft Knesset legislation to confiscate church land sold to private developers.”

Israeli authorities then froze both the tax measures and the legislation, committing to a dialogue with the churches over the issues.

In the meantime, the Jerusalem Mayor, Nir Barkat, said that the city was owed 650 million shekels ($186 million) in uncollected taxes on church properties. However, the municipality was prevented from collecting the taxes by virtue of a decades-long agreement.

Christian leaders claimed that the measure would jeopardize their ability to conduct their work, which includes not only religious but also social services to those in need.

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