Despite Suspension, Jerusalem Tax Leads to Christian Crisis in the Holy Land

In the weeks between Holy Week and Pentecost Sunday, the Christian church around the world continues to reflect upon the significance of Jerusalem. Since the trial, crucifixion, and resurrection of Christ, Jerusalem – the city of peace – has been esteemed as the holiest city of the Christian faith. Despite centuries of changing political landscape and war, the Christian community in the Holy Land has remained a small, but constant presence in this historic and holy city. Smaller in numbers, but mighty in witness to God.

Yet, on Sunday, February 25, 2018, the Jerusalem Church Authorities closed the doors at what is often considered the holiest site in Christianity, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This closure was in protest to churches being caught in the middle of the latest conflict coming out of Jerusalem: a political battle between the Mayor and his opponents in the Israeli Foreign Ministry.

In mid-February, Christian leaders in Jerusalem received word that the municipality intended to break a centuries-long status quo agreement and begin to collect taxes on church properties not used as houses of worship. The Jerusalem Municipality put a lien on church bank accounts by declaring the holder of the account delinquent on paying utility bills. Ironically, the very measures planned for by the Jerusalem municipality are likely to bankrupt the churches and thereby severely damage the economy of Jerusalem. If the Church of the Holy Sepulchre remains closed and the tax issue remains in the realm of probability, churches will not be able to maintain the Holy Places, and eventually, Christian religious tourism will disappear.

The intended shift of church properties from tax exempt to taxable, including back taxes, breaks with the historic Status Quo agreement between Christian religious groups and the state of Israel. These Status Quo agreements have a long history, beginning with the Ottoman Empire in 1622. The “Bill of Church Lands,” proposed in early 2018 allows confiscation of church land and has moved forward in the legislative process.

In February, the Jerusalem Municipality froze hundreds of millions in Church bank accounts. A few days after the Church of the Holy Sepulchre closed its doors, the Jerusalem Municipality announced the suspension of tax collection, in an attempt to resolve the church closure dispute. Despite the announced suspension by the Municipality, the fact remains that this is a temporary hold, and the government could begin collecting taxes again at any time. This unnecessary and manufactured crisis – which could be viewed as a grab for political and financial gain – remains an existential threat to Christian churches in the Holy Land and provokes great uncertainty concerning their future in Jerusalem.

The battle over the taxing of church properties is front and center with the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem, the Latin Patriarchate in the Holy Land, the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem, and the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre has not shut its doors in political protest since 1990. As this legal battle has progressed, the crisis has become an even greater threat to Christian activities and presence in the Holy Land.

It should not be lost on readers that this decision comes as Christians entered into the season of Lent; a time in the church calendar when we prayerfully consider our sin, mortality, and the temptations of this world. What a better reminder of the fallen nature of humanity than a dispute over taxes.

The Jerusalem Municipality claims their hands are tied. Money is tight. It is not fair to subsidize banquet halls and business properties, church-owned or not. Churches, they claim, should not need to fear any threats against their freedom to worship and to perform religious activities.

But this is not just about banquet halls and hotels. Christian churches in Jerusalem–including Catholic, Anglican, Armenian, and Greek Orthodox among other denominations– play an integral role in helping to care for the sick, looking after the oppressed, and bringing food to the hungry.

As leaders of ecumenical Christian organizations in the United States, we have witnessed first hand the ways in which church properties–even those not within the four walls of a sanctuary– heal physical and emotional wounds and seek to encourage understanding across political and religious divides.

Standing unified in opposition to this announcement, leaders of the Christian churches in Jerusalem stated in a press release on February 14: “The civil authorities have always recognized and respected the great contribution of the Christian churches, which invest billions in building schools, hospitals and homes, many for the elderly and disadvantaged, in the Holy Land.” Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP) also issued a press release sharing a letter that : eighteen religious leaders sent to President Trump calling upon his administration to uphold the Status Quo and to protect the vulnerable Christian communities in the Holy Land.

It is simply inconceivable to believe this decision will do anything but greatly threaten the ability of the Christian churches in Jerusalem to carry out their activities. How can we expect churches to faithfully carry out their ministry of compassion if they are expected to pay millions of dollars in what are now considered back taxes? How can the schools teaching much-needed coexistence continue to flourish with church bank accounts frozen? As we continue to see indigenous Christians throughout the Middle East leave their historic homelands, this decision is a direct affront to the centuries-long status quo which helps ensure Jerusalem retains its strong Christian presence.

In announcing their decision, the Jerusalem municipality claims “[they can] no longer consent to have Jerusalem residents fund these huge sums. Either the government will compensate and return these sums that are designated for the city’s development or [they] will collect them as required by law.” We stand with our brothers and sisters in the Christian churches in Jerusalem. Churches cannot be used as bargaining chips in broader political debates. We cannot sit quietly while churches in Jerusalem are used as a proxy between the municipality of Jerusalem and the Israeli Foreign Ministry.

As Christians, we are called to pray for the peace of Jerusalem. Praying, for many in the Christian tradition, is not merely a sedentary activity. It is an action. We must pray with our eyes open, working to ensure political leaders in Washington, D.C. and across the United States send a clear message that the mistreatment of Christian churches in Jerusalem is unacceptable.

Many Christians in the Holy Land are still reeling from the Trump Administration’s decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel – a  decision that further limits peace and neglects to acknowledge the sacredness of the Holy City to two peoples and the three Abrahamic faith traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

The Christian churches in Jerusalem are already facing a myriad of other challenges: from shrinking numbers to disruptions in the ability to freely worship. This latest attack on the historic community of our faith is a step too far. Should the municipality of Jerusalem be allowed to go through with its plan to collect taxes, we are left with the very real possibility many of the Christian churches will have to greatly curtail their activity, if not close completely. This will not be a loss only for the Christian community, but will greatly hinder the prospect for a peaceful resolution to the conflict in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. Christians play a unique role in helping to bridge divides and encourage reconciliation. Christianity is a thread in the fabric that binds the region. If this thread is unraveled, the entire multifaith tapestry comes undone. Their voices are desperately needed. This decision must be reversed and a formal acknowledgement of the Status Quo must be recognized. Christians in the United States must stand with our brothers and sisters in Jerusalem–one of the most sacred spaces of our faith–to ensure we remain a power for love, peace, and reconciliation, in a land so desperately in need of healing.

Rev. Dr. Mae Cannon, Executive Director, Churches for Middle East Peace. Jim Winkler,  President and General Secretary, National Council of Churches. CMEP is very thankful for the writers who contribute to our Prayers for Peace blog. However, CMEP does not necessarily agree with all the positions of our writers, and they do not speak on CMEP’s behalf.