Jerusalem churches appeal to Netanyahu to block bill that restricts land sales

The Cross at the top of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem | Wikimedia Commons/Michael Hammers Studios

Three major churches in Jerusalem have urged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to block a legislation that would allow the government to expropriate church properties.

The leaders of the Armenian, Greek Orthodox and Catholic churches in Jerusalem have claimed that the cabinet is advancing the bill that seeks to nationalize church properties that are being used as housing and sold to private entrepreneurs.

MK Rachel Azaria, who introduced the legislation, claimed that it was aimed at protecting the residents who live on the properties.

The letter — signed by Greek Orthodox leader Patriarch Theophilos III; Armenian Apostolic Patriarch of Jerusalem Nourhan Manougian; and Roman Catholic Fr. Francesco Patton, Custos of the Holy Land — accused the cabinet of failing to comply with an agreement reached between the government and churches after the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was shut down in protest of the legislation.

"This bill was one of the main reasons for the recent crisis that developed between the Christian community in the Holy Land and the State of Israel... in flagrant breach of the Status Quo, brought us to order the closure of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher as an act of protest," the church leaders said in the letter, as reported by The Jerusalem Post.

"We strongly believe that this bill constitutes a systematic and unprecedented attack against the Christians of the Land and violates the most basic rights, thus trampling on the delicate fabric of relations between the Christian community and the State of Israel for decades," they continued.

The church leaders urged Netanyahu "to act quickly and decisively to block the bill whose unilateral promotion will compel the Churches to reciprocate."

Azaria denied the claims made by the heads of the churches and noted that a separate bill has been introduced on Monday to protect the rights of people residing on properties that were once owned by churches. The lawmaker insisted that the cabinet has "no intention in advancing a bill that discriminates the churches."

She further noted that the bill does not target churches, but was aimed at helping thousands of residents who are in danger of losing their homes due to the demands of developers.

The church leaders decided to shut down the Church of the Holy Sepulcher after the Jerusalem municipality started collecting taxes on church property while lawmakers considered a legislation that would allow government to expropriate church property.

Israeli authorities suspended the collection of taxes and the advancement of the bill in response to the protest.

The church leaders claimed that no dialogue has taken place with a special committee appointed by the government to deal with the issue since the agreement in February.