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Christian leaders close church at Jesus’s burial site in tax dispute

In this file photo taken on April 13, 2014 a general view shows the interior of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre during the Palm Sunday Easter procession in Jerusalem's Old City on April 13, 2014. (AFP)
JERUSALEM: Christian leaders in Jerusalem closed one of the city’s holiest sites to visitors on Sunday in protest at a proposed new Israeli law that threatens expropriation of church land.
Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian church leaders said the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a popular stop for pilgrims, would remain closed until further notice.
In response, an Israeli Cabinet committee delayed consideration of a draft law that would allow the state to expropriate land in Jerusalem sold by churches to private property companies.
The stated aim of the law is to protect homeowners against the possibility that private companies will not extend their leases on land on which their homes are built.
The churches are major property owners in the city. They say the law would make it harder for them to find buyers for church-owned land — sales that help to cover their operating costs.
“This abhorrent bill ... if approved, would make the expropriation of the lands of churches possible,” said the statement by Theophilos III, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, Francesco Patton, the Custos of the Holy Land, and Nourhan Manougian, the Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem.
Rachel Azaria, the Knesset member who sponsored the legislation, said she woud delay discussion of the law by a week so that “we could work with the churches” to try to resolve the dispute.
The churches’ protest was also aimed at the recent cancelation by Israel’s Jerusalem municipality of a tax exemption it has granted to church-owned commercial properties in the city.
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat said it was illogical to expect that church-owned commercial property, including hotels and retail businesses, would continue to enjoy tax-exempt status.
“Let me make it clear: we are not talking about houses of worship, which will still be exempt from property tax, according to law,” he said.
Outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, pilgrims voiced their disappointment at finding its doors shut.
“I am very upset. It’s my first time here and I made a big effort to get here and now I find it closed,” said Marine Domenech from Lille, France.

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