Behind the Churches’ Dispute with Israel

The dispute between the Christian denominations in Jerusalem and Israel has been put on hold, pending a compromise. A look at the financial and political reasons which led to the crisis.

Demonstrations at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem (Photo - Flash 90)

Politics are everywhere it seems, including holy sites. On February 25th, in response to recent decisions taken by Jerusalem municipal authorities, the heads of the Greek-Orthodox, Franciscan, and Armenian churches decided to close the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. A step that is unprecedented in modern history.

On the same day, the Greek-Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III gave a speech in which he said that the Israeli government’s policy is reminiscent of anti-Semitic laws in dark chapters of history.

Hamas was quick to jump on the bandwagon and called for an “Intifada” over this affair, issuing threats similar to those made over the Temple Mount several months ago. Islamist elements, together with pro-Palestinian Christian elements within the churches, claimed that just as Israel attempted to take over the Temple Mount and remove the Muslims, the Jewish State is now leading a racist move to take over the churches and expel Christians. They added that the Zionist-Jews are waging war against anyone who isn’t a Jew.

Things calmed down only after Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu intervened and offered that the government convene a special committee to formulate a solution to the dispute.

So what was the fuss all about?

In essence, an opportunity for publicity and lots of politics. The immediate reason for this unusual dispute emanated from a decision by the Mayor of Jerusalem (which, by the way, was legally examined and approved) to collect city tax debts from church properties.

By “Church properties” they did not mean actual churches and other places of worship. Those are exempt from city tax. This is about properties belonging to the churches which are not places of worship.

In the 19th century, the churches in the Holy Land purchased land and properties which now serve as a source of income, financing church activities. Residential neighborhoods, businesses, commercial zones, hotels, hospitals and various institutions were built on these properties.  All of these were exempt from city tax, even though they are not institutes of worship. This is an exemption worth hundreds of millions of New Israeli Shekels (NIS) and the debt today amounts to 650 million NIS (nearly $200 million).

Jerusalem is Israel’s largest city, but its economic situation is complex. There are two populations in Jerusalem whose participation in the workforce and subsequent tax payments are below those of the general population. This forces mayors to look for government funding and other solutions.

Make no mistake, Jerusalem is rapidly developing and tourism in it (as in the rest of Israel) reached a record high in 2017. Mayor Nir Barkat has waged a well-publicized struggle with Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon over the past year for funding for the city. So far, the Finance Minister did not accept Jerusalem’s mayor’s requests.

So, while the decision to tax the Churches had legal approval, this is nothing more than a badly-timed publicity stunt. After all, Jerusalem’s mayor invests much effort in building and maintaining relations with the heads of Christian churches and other groups in the city. City Hall has a professional team which held, in the past months, meetings and events with all church leaders and senior officials in the city, and the mayor even held a reception for them.

As if this was not enough, Israeli Member of the Knesset Rachel Azaria (Kulanu Party) sought some publicity herself. She submitted a private motion to nationalize all church lands which the Jewish National Fund (JNF) leased from the churches for residence. This includes lands the church has sold, or will sell in the future, to private entrepreneurs.

This proposal is no more than sheer populism and it attests to great ignorance on part of this Knesset Member, who knows and understands nothing about the Christian world and international sensitivities. This motion was not even brought to discussion before the Knesset. There are experienced, rational, and well-educated people in the Israeli government who blocked this Knesset Member’s cheap PR stunt.

The situation surrounding the lands threatens Greek-Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III’s seat and he saw his fate as that of his predecessor Irenaios. So, to satisfy the political elements, he bashed Israel. He launched an international campaign, meeting with various world leaders and accusing Israel of persecuting Christians. I am of the opinion that he does not believe his own words said against Israel, but he probably has experienced media and political consultants.

To really understand what is behind it all, one must understand the land issue. On some of these church lands in Jerusalem (especially Greek-Orthodox), residential neighborhoods were built, after the lands were leased by the church to the Jewish National Fund (JNF). In recent years, the Greek-Orthodox church decided to sell the land.

This is a highly sensitive and very political issue. The previous Greek-Orthodox Church Patriarch, Irenaios I, was unseated after he carried out such a move. Once news spread that the current Patriarch, Theophilos III, is offering land for sale as well, various elements within the Greek-Orthodox church began to protest and thus threaten Theophilos, as previously mentioned.

These elements totally identify with the pro-Palestinian movement, with the Joint Arab List Party, who are coordinating their actions with elements in the Palestinian Authority and Jordan. In addition to their political opposition to selling land to Jews, they also criticized the low prices in which these lands were sold. This in order to gain support among the Arab public that does not necessarily identify with their political line.

They even involved Father Gabriel Naddaf (who they call the “Enlistment Priest”) in the controversy. Father Gabriel worked for the past five years to encourage Christian youth in Israel to enlist in the IDF and National Service and take part in Israeli society.

Nadaff completely left any public activity last June and returned to serving in his church in Yafia (Yafa an-Naseriyye), near Nazareth. The very fact that he was a dominant figure in the Greek Patriarchy (He was Irenaios’ speaker when he was Patriarch and serving in the Church court) and led a historic positive change among Christians in Israel, alarmed the pro-Palestinian elements in the church. In the past they campaigned to expel him from the church (a campaign in which elements in Jordan and the PA were involved).

The pro-Palestinian elements in the churches and church-related institutions promote anti-Israeli propaganda inside the churches. This is apparently another part of “reversing the damage” (from their perspective) caused by Father Gabriel’s activity and the positive historic change from Israel’s perspective, among Israeli Christians.

These are the same elements leading the struggle against the current Patriarch today. It’s all politics. In this context, one can understand that the Patriarch’s harsh words were mostly intended to appease the pro-Palestinian political elements who want to unseat him from his position.

At a time when anti-Israeli sentiments are coming from within the churches, decision makers in Israel must be aware of the fact that these elements are finding fertile ground among some of the Christian public in Israel. At the moment, this is mostly in the Christian community in Jerusalem. The voices though are also spreading northward.

There are other voices though. Christians in the north, with whom I spoke, claim that they will not support the church heads in economic matters, as the churches themselves, with their private schools, rob parents through the high tuition fees they charge and non-transparent conduct.

It is clear that matters are not black-and-white, not everyone agrees on everything, and there is a gap between the politics of churches and church heads and the Christian public, but one must not take the potential influence of the general public lightly.

Over the last five years, there is a historic process within the Christian Arabic-Speaking community of integrating into Israeli society and enlistment in the IDF and National Service. There are soldiers and National Service volunteers among the Jerusalem Christians today as well. Though their numbers are small, the process in Jerusalem is only beginning. It is understood that the current dispute harms the positive developments of this historic process.

We must also pay attention to international influence. In recent years, NGOs, private parties, and elements in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Tourism, and of the Prime Minister’s Office make great efforts to strengthen ties with Christian communities worldwide.

A problem might arise here as well, which will negatively affect these diplomatic and relations efforts. Programs such as EAPPI of the World Council of Churches (WCC), who’s activists are in Israel with tourist visas, under the guise of human rights activism, promoting BDS, illegally following and documenting IDF troops, police officers and so on. They try to gain legitimacy for this illegal activity in the Christian world and among international groups and governments. They do so by claiming that the churches in Jerusalem and Christians in Israel invited the WCC to help them against Israeli governmental persecution. These false claims, in this time of vicious anti-Israeli propaganda, might be perceived as true and if only among naive believers.

Also, from the international perspective, one must not forget tourism. 2017, as mentioned above, was a peak year in tourism in Israel and Jerusalem. Such events may have negative influence on Christian-Pilgrim tourism and harm Israel’s and particularly Jerusalem’s image and economy. So, city tax income may rise from this, but it might be accompanied with loss in the tourism market.

The land affair did not pass and Jerusalem’s mayor’s hasty decision about city tax came along. And here, an opportunity was created for Patriarch Theophilos, who managed to harness the Catholics and Armenians to his side as well, to harvest the fruits of public relations and thus strengthen his hold on his ramshackle throne.

After public relations and politics, we must take these matters very seriously, as their influence is not positive. The municipal decision should have been made and carried out in an agreed way, by negotiating with church representatives and including them in the decision-making process.

The Israeli government was wise to carry out two steps. The first, the earlier one, was the formation of an inter-ministerial team led by the Ministry of Justice, which is responsible for formulating a solution to the land question, and the second is the formation of the team led by Minister Hanegbi. This will include representatives of the Ministries of Finance, Foreign Affairs and the Interior and the Jerusalem Municipality, to formulate a solution to the issue of municipal taxes (which do not apply to houses of worship). The team will negotiate with the representatives of the churches to resolve the issue.

As a result, the Jerusalem Municipality is suspending the collection actions it has taken in recent weeks.

In addition, following a request by the heads of the churches to enter negotiations regarding the sale of land in Jerusalem, Prime Minister Netanyahu has asked Minister Hanegbi to examine the issue. While the Minister is doing so, all legislative activity on the matter will be suspended.

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.

Following the Prime Minister’s announcement, the Greek-Orthodox Patriarch, Theophilos III, Francesco Patton, Custos of the Franciscan Order in the Holy Land, and Nourhan Manougian the Armenian Patriarch, issued their own statement thanking the Prime Minister’s intervention in this question, and their anticipation of working with Minister Hanegbi.

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher was reopened on February 28th.


Amit Barak is a Consultant on Christian enlistment in the IDF and Christian integration into Israeli society

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