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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 June 2018

Christians close doors of famous Jerusalem church to protest taxes

Officials did not clarify how long the closure of the church would last

Worshippers kneel and pray in front of the closed doors of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City, on February 25, 2018. Amir Cohen / Reuters
Worshippers kneel and pray in front of the closed doors of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City, on February 25, 2018. Amir Cohen / Reuters

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built where Christians believe Jesus was buried in Jerusalem, closed its doors on Sunday in protest at Israeli tax measures and a proposed property law.

Christian officials did not clarify how long the closure of the church, which is considered the holiest site in Christianity, would last.

They said during a press conference that Israel’s measures seemed to be “an attempt to weaken the Christian presence in Jerusalem” and part of a “systematic campaign of abuse” against them.

"As a measure of protest, we decided to take this unprecedented step of closure of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre," Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic and Catholic leaders said in a joint statement.

Christian officials are angered over attempts by Israeli authorities to enforce tax collection on church property, which they consider commercial. They said exemptions only apply to places of worship or religious teaching.

Separately, legislation being considered by the government would allow church property to be expropriated.

"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," the statement said.

"This reminds us all of laws of a similar nature which were enacted against the Jews during a dark period in Europe."

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Mayor of Jerusalem Nir Barkat said the city was due 650 million shekels (Dh684.5m) in uncollected taxes on church properties, which he said was “illegal and irrational”.

Mr Barkat said in a statement that the municipality will continue to care for Christians’ needs but “hotels, halls and businesses cannot be exempt from municipal taxes simply because they are owned by the churches”.

Christian official say the move jeapordises their ability to conduct their work, which is not limited to religious services but also social.

Meanwhile, Rachel Azaria of the Kulanu party, who proposed the land legislation, said that it aims to curb the fears of Israelis who live on lands previously held by the Greek Orthodox Church and which were sold to private developers.

Recent land sales by the Orthodox church have drawn sharp criticism from Israelis and Palestinians.

One tourist from Russia said that “it is very disappointing” that she could not visit the church on Sunday.

"It is one of the main religious attractions, and to us it was very important to visit it because it is our first time [here]," Elona, 20, told Agence France-Presse.

She said she does not feel "her mission is accomplished" as she was only visiting for a few days.