Churches in Jerusalem cry foul over municipal tax decision

(Photo: © Peter Kenny)Jerusalem minarets and spires on Feb. 14, 2016.

Church leaders in Jerusalem have expressed strong opposition to city authorities imposing municipal taxes on them, arguing that this would contradict centuries of historical agreements between the churches and civil authorities.

The patriarchs and church leaders issued a joint statement on June 23 highly critical of the move.

"We declare that such a measure both undermines the sacred character of Jerusalem and jeopardizes the Church's ability to conduct its ministry in this land on behalf of its communities and the worldwide church," they said.

The heads of the Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Armenian Orthodox denominations sent a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu advising him that four different municipalities in Israel had recently sent warning letters to the churches threatening legal action over failure to pay taxes.

"We believe these efforts represent a coordinated attack on the Christian presence in the Holy Land," the church leaders wrote, according to the Greek Reporter on June 26.

"In this time, when the whole world, and the Christian world in particular, are constantly following the events in Israel, we find ourselves, once again, dealing with an attempt by authorities to drive the Christian presence out of the Holy Land."

The church leaders said there is a longstanding tradition of not taxing their properties, including commercial properties, because funds from those properties are used in ways that provide a benefit to the state, funding schools, hospitals, and homes for the elderly and disabled.

In the past year, municipalities such as Tel Aviv, Ramla, Nazareth, and Jerusalem had started sending warnings threatening legal action, according to the Greek Reporter.

The Jerusalem Post reported that the conflict over municipal taxes on church properties in Jerusalem has been ongoing for several years.

In 2018, the Jerusalem Municipality announced plans to collect 650 million Israeli shekels (US$172 million) in taxes from properties owned by churches that are not used as houses of worship.

This decision led to a backlash from church leaders, who viewed the move as violating longstanding agreements and international obligations guaranteeing their rights and privileges.

The heads of churches called upon the Jerusalem Municipality to retract its decision and uphold the historically sanctioned status quo.

They emphasized the importance of maintaining Jerusalem's sacred character and protecting the churches' ability to carry out their work.

The Patriarchs and Heads of Churches who signed the statement included:

- Patriarch Theophilos III, Greek Orthodox Patriarchate- Patriarch Nourhan Manougian, Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Patriarchate- Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Apostolic Administrator, Latin Patriarchate- Fr. Francesco Patton, OFM, Custos of the Holy Land- Archbishop Anba Antonious, Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate, Jerusalem- Archbishop Swerios Malki Murad, Syrian Orthodox Patriarchate- Archbishop Aba Embakob, Ethiopian Orthodox Patriarchate- Archbishop Joseph-Jules Zerey, Greek-Melkite-Catholic Patriarchate- Archbishop Mosa El-Hage, Maronite Patriarchal Exarchate- Archbishop Suheil Dawani, Episcopal Church of Jerusalem and the Middle East- Bishop Ibrahim Sani Azar, Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land- Bishop Pierre Malki, Syrian Catholic Patriarchal Exarchate- Msgr. Georges Dankaye', Armenian Catholic Patriarchal Exarchate

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