Pilgrims visiting the holiest site in Christendom, Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre, found its doors shuttered this week, in a protest against proposed legislation that would enable the government of Israel to tax and even confiscate properties owned by the city’s Christian churches.
Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem Archbishop Nourhan Manougian was among the high-ranking church signatories to an official statement protesting the municipal tax, called the “Arnona.” The statement called the proposed legislation “contrary to the historic position between the Churches within the Holy City of Jerusalem and the civil authorities across the centuries.”
The Armenian, Greek, and Latin patriarchates are the longstanding joint-custodians of the Holy Sepulchre, the site of Christ’s tomb, and its vast surrounding complex in Jerusalem’s Old City.
Joining the Greek, Armenian, and Latin patriarchs in the statement were leaders of the Coptic Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox, Melkite-Catholic, Maronite, Episcopal, Evangelical Lutheran, Syrian Catholic, and Armenian Catholic churches.
The decision to close the site as a sign of protest—effectively making it off-limits to thousands of pilgrims and tourists for the duration—was an extremely rare step, not undertaken lightly, but deemed necessary because the municipality’s plan to alter the religious tax exemption for churches would decisively weaken the Christian presence in Jerusalem.
“The civil authorities have always recognized and respected the great contribution of the Christian Churches, which invest billions in building schools, hospitals, and homes, many for the elderly and disadvantaged, in the Holy Land,” the statement said.
The protest statement of Jerusalem’s Christian leaders appears below.
The Holy Sepulchre remained closed for three days, until Tuesday, February 27—when Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat officially suspended the plan to collect taxes from Christian churches. An announcement from the office of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu said that he and the mayor had formed a team to “formulate a solution” to the matter, by negotiating with church officials.
The Christian leaders agreed to re-open the Holy Sepulchre as of February 28, stating that “the churches look forward to engage” with the team to ensure Jerusalem “remains a place where the three monotheistic faiths may live and thrive together.”
Statement from the Heads of Churches in Jerusalem On the City/Municipal Tax (Arnona)
Following the statement by the Municipality of Jerusalem declaring that the Churches in Jerusalem should pay municipal taxes (known as Arnona), we, the Heads of Churches in Jerusalem, declare that such a statement is contrary to the historic position between the Churches within the Holy City of Jerusalem and the civil authorities across the centuries. The civil authorities have always recognized and respected the great contribution of the Christian Churches, which invest billions in building schools, hospitals, and homes, many for the elderly and disadvantaged, in the Holy Land.
We declare that such a measure both undermines the sacred character of Jerusalem, and jeopardises [sic] the Church’s ability to conduct its ministry in this land on behalf of its communities and the world-wide church.
We request the Municipality to retract their statement and ensure that the status quo which was sanctioned by the sacred history is maintained, and the character of the Holy City of Jerusalem is not violated.
We stand firm and united in our position to defend our presence and properties.[Signed]
The Patriarchs and Heads of Churches in Jerusalem
Patriarch Theophilos III
Greek Orthodox Patriarchate
Patriarch Nourhan Manougian
Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Patriarchate
Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa
Apostolic Administrator, Latin Patriarchate
Fr. Francesco Patton
Custos of the Holy Land
Archbishop Anba Antonious
Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate, Jerusalem
Archbishop Swerios Malki Murad
Syrian Orthodox Patriarchate
Archbishop Aba Embakob
Ethiopian Orthodox Patriarchate
Archbishop Joseph-Jules Zerey
Archbishop Mosa El-Hage
Maronite Patriarchal Exarchate
Archbishop Suheil Dawani
Episcopal Church of Jerusalem and the Middle East
Bishop Ibrahim Sani Azar
Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land
Bishop Pierre Malki
Syrian Catholic Patriarchal Exarchate
Msgr. Georges Dankaye’
Armenian Catholic Patriarchal Exarchate