Thursday,25 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1383, (1 - 7 March 2018)
Thursday,25 April, 2019
Issue 1383, (1 - 7 March 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Church leaders challenge Israel

The decision to close the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in protest at Israeli actions in Jerusalem is an unprecedented step by Christian religious leaders, writes Michael Adel


Church leaders challenge Israel
Church leaders challenge Israel

اقرأ باللغة العربية

“Recent actions taken by the Israeli government against Christian churches in Jerusalem are destroying the sacred character of the Holy City,” said Anba Antonios, Archbishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church of the Metropolitan of Jerusalem and the Near East, in an exclusive interview with Al-Ahram Weekly.

Jerusalem’s mayor on Tuesday temporarily suspended the tax plan that had prompted the closure of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre since Sunday.

The religious official was referring to a new Israeli tax policy and a proposed land expropriation law that led church leaders in Jerusalem to close the  Church of the Holy Sepulchre in a rare act of protest. “The measures jeopardise the churches’ ability to perform their duties in this land in the name of their parishioners and the churches of the world,” he added.

Archbishop Antonios explained what triggered the crisis is the Israeli government’s breach of a long-established status quo in the relationship between the government and churches, which have been exempt from taxes until this point. “Some years ago, the Israeli government began to send tax-related notices to the churches, for example, to the address of the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchy in Jerusalem. The government told that churches that they had to hold on to these documents but it assured them that payment was not required.” He added that the government’s cover letter accompanying the notices stated precisely that.

Ecclesiastic sources close to these developments relate that the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem convened a meeting of the heads of all churches in Jerusalem to discuss Israeli abuses against Christians in Jerusalem. According to the sources, church officials present at the meeting included Armenian Catholic Bishop Krikor Coussa, Archbishop of the Episcopal Diocese in Jerusalem Soheil Dawani, Greek-Melkite Patriarch Youssef Absi, and Anba Antonios, representative of Tawadros II, Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of the See of St Mark.

According to the ecclesiastic sources, the idea of closing the Church of the Holy Sepulchre originated with Theophilos III, patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church which has the lion’s share of responsibilities as custodian of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. They add that Theophilos III also spearheaded the drive to rally church leaders in Jerusalem to stand up against Israeli abuses and to agree to shutter the famous religious landmark forty days ahead of Easter and the main season of Christian pilgrimage to the Holy City.

The Advisory Council of the Catholic Centre for Studies and Media (CCSM) in Jordan has stated that it has “followed with great concern the statement of the Israeli Municipality of Jerusalem, in which it announced the imposition of property taxes (known as arnona) on churches as well as the seizure of church properties and bank accounts on the pretext of non-payment of tax on land property. In light of these fateful developments, the Advisory Council of the CCSM in Jordan declares its categorical rejection of the relevant Israeli steps, since they are incompatible with the historical position of the churches in the Holy City and with their relations with the civil authorities.”

The Advisory Council of the CCSM noted that “The churches have been exempted from paying taxes for centuries” and that “The civil authorities have always respected the great role played by Christian churches which serve local communities through their hundreds of millions of dollars-worth of projects and initiatives that are spent on building schools, hospitals, homes and charities. Many of the projects are dedicated to serve the elderly, the people with special needs, as well as the needy and poor families.”

In light of the foregoing, the Advisory Council stressed that the Israeli measures “will undermine the sacred character of Jerusalem and its inclusive identity, debilitate the churches’ endeavours to fulfil their role and mission in the Holy Land, jeopardise their role, and put more pressure on Christians in Jerusalem and the Holy Land which ultimately threatens their historic and deep-rooted presence. Therefore, the Advisory Council expresses its full support for the extraordinary and protestation steps undertaken by the heads of the churches of Jerusalem to shut the doors of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a site destined by millions of pilgrims from all parts of the world, until a time when the historic status quo is respected as well as when the unique and distinguished nature of Jerusalem is maintained.”

Amman, where the CCSM is based, was one of the first Arab capitals to condemn the Israeli action. The Hashemite Kingdom is the guardian and custodian of Muslim and Christian holy sites in Jerusalem. In its statement, the Advisory Council expressed its appreciation for the Jordanian government’s stance but it also called on “the entire international community to condemn the statement issued by the Municipality of Jerusalem as well as to pressure the government of Israel and the Municipality of Jerusalem to revoke this decision”.

It also called on “the international community and spiritual capitals to respond to the latest Israeli moves by exerting unstinting efforts to preserve the historic status of Jerusalem and its Islamic and Christian holy sites in its capacity as a city of peace, brotherhood and solidarity among the different religions.”

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