JERUSALEM, Israel – In a dramatic protest, Orthodox church leaders closed the doors of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City on Sunday over a municipal tax dispute. Now they've announced the church will stay closed indefinitely as they continue their fight.
Some say the move is a ploy to gain international attention. The church leaders are angry over a decision to collect municipal property taxes from church-owned properties, excluding churches and houses of prayer.
Many believe that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre marks the spot where Jesus was buried and rose from the dead.
"Recently, this systematic and offensive campaign has reached an unprecedented level as the Jerusalem municipality issued scandalous collection notices and orders of seizure of Church assets, properties and bank accounts for alleged debts of punitive municipal taxes," Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III said.
The Jerusalem Municipality says the churches owe some $185 million in back taxes.
Theophilos said the city's move seemed like an attempt to weaken the Christian presence in Jerusalem.
"The systematic campaign of abuse against churches and Christians reaches now its peak as a discriminatory and racist bill that targets solely the properties of the Christian community in the Holy Land is being promoted," he said. "This reminds us all of laws of a similar nature, which were enacted against the Jews during the dark periods in Europe."
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat disagreed.
"In Jerusalem, all are equal under the law – Christians, Muslims and Jews alike. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre – as is the case for all of Jerusalem's churches, synagogues and mosques – is exempt from municipal taxes. There is absolutely no change in this regard," Barkat said.
"Commercial buildings, such as hotels, places of commerce and office space, however, are not exempt from municipal taxes regardless of their ownership."
Barkat explained that the Haifa and Tel Aviv municipalities both collect taxes from commercial church assets.
Jerusalem City Council member Fleur Hassan-Nahoum said the uproar isn't about persecution; it's about money.
"We see this as a very cynical move from the church, where we are talking about something affecting their pockets and nothing else, and them wanting to turn this into a religious conflict using terms like persecution," she said.
"Jerusalem is the only city in the Middle East where there is true freedom of religion and true freedom of worship, and they choose instead of protesting the millions of people, the Christians getting slaughtered around the Middle East, instead of worrying about that, they are worrying about something affecting only their pockets," she said.
The disagreement actually mixes two issues: the municipal taxes and pending legislation regarding lands already sold by the churches.
Knesset member Rachel Azaria is sponsoring the new legislation.
"My legislation discusses land that was sold to private owners and it was sold at not very high sum from the churches and these private owners now are going to people that live in apartments and saying if you don't pay us half a million shekels, you'll lose your apartment. And that's not fair," Azaria told CBN News.
In Israel, almost all the land belongs to the state, which leases it to builders so even homeowners don't own the land. The exception is the Orthodox Church, which purchased lands for agriculture here 200 years ago, long before the establishment of the modern State of Israel. Now those formerly agricultural areas are in central Jerusalem.
"I think that one of the reasons that the churches sold the land for not a very high price is because they realize that people live on this land, and you can't just kick people out of their homes," Azaria said. "And once this started happening we realized as a government we need to work out a solution."
The government, she said, aims to buy back the land that the Church sold.
"It has nothing to do with any of the lands that are owned by the churches and unfortunately they got very nervous about it and very worked up and now we're working with them to lower the flames and to make it clear what the real story is," she said.
Photos, TPS, Hillel Maeir; CBN News, Jonathan Goff; AP (Orthodox leaders)