The heads of the Catholic and Anglican church in Britain are calling on the Israeli government to end the "punitive" taxation on church properties in Jerusalem to preserve the "Status Quo" of holy sites in the city.
The Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols and the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby have recently sent a joint letter to the Israeli ambassador to the UK to express their "deep concern" about the new taxation law that was aimed at collecting £130 million (US$180 million) from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
In the letter, the church leaders lamented that the new taxation laws could cause "serious damage" to the "Christian presence in Jerusalem" as well as Christian families and Christian institutions, including schools and hospitals.
"It is our view that the measures being pressed in Jerusalem and in the Knesset are a clear and evident threat to the status quo. These violations of historic agreements risk undermining prospects for peaceful coexistence between communities, at a time of already heightened tensions," the letter stated, as reported by Jewish News.
The attempt to tax church-owned properties in Jerusalem was halted in late February after church leaders in charge of various Christian holy sites in the city decided to shut down the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for several days in protest of the tax decision. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is believed to be the site of the passion and burial of Christ, was reopened on Feb. 28.
Some observers have believed that the tax plan stemmed from a dispute between Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and Israel's central government about the funding for the city, according to Crux. The mayor had stated that only church-owned properties that are not used for worship — such as hotels, restaurants and conference centers — would be taxed.
After Barkat decided to suspend the tax plan, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu established a team on Feb. 27 to negotiate with representatives of the churches to resolve the issue.
"Israel is proud to be the only country in the Middle East where Christians and believers of all faiths have full freedom of religion and worship. Israel is home to a flourishing Christian community and welcomes its Christian friends from all over the world," said a statement from the office of the prime minister.
Netanyahu announced that the Jerusalem Municipality would suspend tax collection actions it had taken in recent weeks. The prime minister also stated that the work on a legislation that would allow the Israeli government to expropriate land in that were sold by Jerusalem churches to private real estate firms in recent years will also be suspended during the review of the tax plan.
The measure is supposedly aimed at protecting homeowners against the possibility that private companies will not extend their leases of land on which the residences stand. Jerusalem churches, which are major property owners in the city, have complained that the law would make it more difficult for them to find buyers for their land.