Holiest site in Christianity closed for second day in Israel tax dispute
The Jerusalem church built at what many consider the holiest site in Christianity remained closed for a second day Monday to protest Israeli tax measures and a proposed property law, leaving disappointed pilgrims locked outside.
Palestinian Christian leaders took the rare step of closing the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Sunday at noon in a bid to pressure Israeli authorities into abandoning the measures.
They said the church, a major pilgrimage site, would be closed until further notice.
Church officials said on Monday it was not clear when it would reopen, depending on discussions with Christian leaders and Israeli authorities.
"We closed the church for specific reasons and for an unlimited period of time," one church official said on condition of anonymity.
"It is a move supported by all the churches."
The church is built where Christians believe Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected.
The decision to close the church was extremely rare. Visits are expected to increase for Easter, which falls on 1 April for Western Christians and 8 April for the Orthodox.
In 1990, Christian sites including the Holy Sepulchre were closed for a day to protest the installation of Jewish settlers near the church, located in Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem.
Christian sites were shut for two days in 1999 to protest the planned construction of a mosque near Nazareth's Church of the Annunciation, where tradition holds the Angel Gabriel announced to Mary she was to become the mother of Jesus.
Christian leaders are angry over attempts by Israeli authorities in Jerusalem to enforce tax collection on church property they consider commercial, saying exemptions only apply to places of worship or religious teaching.
They also say legislation being considered by Israel's government would allow church property to be expropriated.
Major Jerusalem landowner
Israeli Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat says the city is due 650 million shekels ($186 million) in uncollected taxes on church properties.
He stresses the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and all other churches are exempt from the taxes, with the changes only affecting establishments like "hotels, halls and businesses" owned by the churches.
Christian leaders say the measure jeopardises their ability to conduct their work, which includes not only religious but also social services to those in need.
A separate bill seeks to allay the fears of Israelis who live in homes on lands previously held by the Greek Orthodox Church and which were sold to private developers, according to the lawmaker proposing the legislation.
Recent land sales by the Greek Orthodox Church - a major landowner in Jerusalem - to unknown buyers have drawn fire from both Israelis and Palestinians.
Palestinians fear the sales will favour Israeli settlement construction in East Jerusalem, while Israelis are concerned over private developers' intentions for the land.
The bill would allow certain lands sold by the Greek Orthodox Church to be handed over to the state, which would then compensate those who bought it from the church.
"This reminds us all of laws of a similar nature which were enacted against the Jews during a dark period in Europe," Christian leaders said in a statement on Sunday.
They also said recent Israeli measures seemed to be "an attempt to weaken the Christian presence in Jerusalem".
The Greek Orthodox, Armenian and Roman Catholic denominations share custody of the Holy Sepulchre.