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Jerusalem council launches bid to end tax exemptions on church-owned properties

(Wikimedia Commons/Matt0962)The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, Israel is featured in this image.

Jerusalem's city council has called for an end to tax exemptions on properties owned by churches and the U.N., claiming that the exemptions only applied to buildings that are legally recognized as places of worship.

In a letter addressed to the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the council contended that international agreements only exempt places of worship, but churches have been excused for years from paying charges on their huge commercial property portfolios.

Municipality Director General Amnon Merhav said that 887 properties owe a total of 657,180,520 shekels (over $190 million) in property taxes, but he declined not specify the timeframe covered.

According to Times of Israel, the letter cited a legal opinion by an Israeli international law professor, who said that the exemptions for churches only applied to properties that are used "for prayer, for the teaching of religion or for needs arising from that."

The religious institution that had the largest tax bill was the Roman Catholic Church, owing nearly NIS 12 million (US$,3477,960), followed by the Anglicans, Armenians and Greek Orthodox.

Some Palestinians condemned the move saying, it is aimed at "emptying" the city of its Arab residents and Christian holy sites.

"This is a new aggression against our occupied capital, Jerusalem. The decision is designed to further strangulate our people [in Jerusalem] to fulfill the occupation authorities' illusions of displacing them," said Yusef Al-Mahmoud, spokesperson for the Palestinian Authority government in Ramallah

The Jerusalem Municipality's decision was also denounced by Palestinian Archbishop Atallah Hanna of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, who said that Israel does not have the right to interfere in the affairs of the churches.

"The churches have been in Jerusalem before Israel was established and they have always been exempt from paying taxes, including under Jordan and the British Mandate," he said.

Atallah asserted that the authorities are seeking to expand their control on Jerusalem and weaken and marginalize the presence Christians, as well as the Muslims, in the city.

"We will not collaborate with this Israeli decision and we will not succumb to Israeli pressure and blackmail," he added.

The Greek Orthodox Church, which owns residential and commercial property in both West Jerusalem and East Jerusalem, has come under fire from Palestinians over allegations that it has sold some of its property to groups aiding Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem.

Reports have indicated that the Greek Orthodox Church has been selling off vast swaths of real estate in west Jerusalem and across Israel.

"In recent years the patriarchate has been quietly selling off its properties in various parts of the country to companies hidden in tax shelters, for sums so low one wonders whether the church is trying to get rid of its assets at any cost," a report from Haaretz in October read.

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