Holy Land churches cry foul over Israeli legislation on lands

In February, church leaders closed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, following which Israeli authorities froze both proposed tax measures and expropriation legislation and committed to a dialogue with Christians over the issues. (Getty Images)
Updated 18 June 2018
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Holy Land churches cry foul over Israeli legislation on lands

  • In their letter to Netanyahu, the Christian leaders slammed the “scandalous bill,” accusing its backers of an “unprecedented attack against the Christians of the Land.”
  • Large swathes of Jerusalem are owned by various churches, which in many cases reached long-term leasing agreements with the state.

JERUSALEM: Three major Holy Land churches implored Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday to prevent the advancement of a draft bill they said was aimed at expropriating their lands.
Heads of the Armenian, Greek Orthodox and Catholic churches in Jerusalem also accused the Israeli authorities of failing to keep a committment made just a few months ago that brought an end to a major crisis between the sides.
In February, the Jerusalem municipality began enforcing tax collection on church property, while separately lawmakers in the parliament worked on advancing a law that would allow expropriation of church property.
The church leaders in protest closed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site in Jerusalem where Jesus is believed to have been crucified and buried, following which Israeli authorities froze both the tax measures and the legislation, committing to a dialogue with the Christians over the issues.
Rachel Azaria, a lawmaker with the centrist coalition party Kulanu, recently renewed work on a slightly revised bill that does not mention churches but would let the state expropriate the rights over lands sold by such bodies in Jerusalem, while offering compensation.
In their Monday letter to Netanyahu, the Christian leaders slammed the “scandalous bill,” accusing its backers of an “unprecedented attack against the Christians of the Land.”
“Certain elements in the government of Israel are still attempting to promote divisive, racist and subversive agendas, thereby undermining the Status Quo and targeting the Christian community on the basis of extraneous and populist considerations,” they said.
The church leaders also said that despite the Israeli committment to communicate on these issues via a specially appointed committee headed by Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, “no dialogue whatsoever has taken place with us” since the end of February.
“We view such conduct, from those who promote the bill, as a flagrant violation and undermining of Your Excellency’s commitment and of the basic and fundamental freedom of worship,” the church leaders said.
They urged Netanyahu to swiftly “block the bill whose unilateral promotion will compel the Churches to reciprocate.”
Large swathes of Jerusalem are owned by various churches, which in many cases reached long-term leasing agreements with the state.
Residents living in homes on such lands fear the churches could sell the lands to private developers, who would be free to do as they wish with their property, including raising rents or razing existing structures.
Azaria said her bill did not single out churches, and was aimed at solving the problem of “thousands of Jerusalem residents who could lose their homes due to the demands of developers.”
There was no immediate comment from Netanyahu’s office while Hanegbi refused to comment.
A spokeswoman for Azaria told AFP the bill was coordinated with Netanyahu and Hanegbi.


Dozens arrested in protests against fifth term for Algeria president

Updated 10 min 35 sec ago
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Dozens arrested in protests against fifth term for Algeria president

ALGIERS: Security forces arrested 41 people during angry protests that rocked Algeria's capital against ailing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika seeking a fifth term, authorities said Saturday.
Police fired tear gas on Friday to block a protest march on the presidential palace, prompting demonstrators to respond with stone-throwing.
The Directorate General for National Security (DGSN) said Saturday it had detained 41 people over "public disorder, vandalism, damage to property, violence and assault".
Despite the arrests, protests around the country were largely tolerated by authorities, even in the capital, where demonstrations have been strictly banned since 2001.
The police did not give an estimate of the number of protesters, but a security official speaking on condition of anonymity told AFP some 20,000 people had demonstrated nationwide, around a quarter of them in Algiers.
The official said 38 of the arrests were in the capital, and that no security personnel had been wounded.
Some demonstrators in Algiers scaled the outside of a building and tore down a poster bearing the portrait of Bouteflika, the country's 81-year-old president.
French-language daily El Watan said crowds also gathered in the city of Ouargla where "thousands of demonstrators chanted 'the people want the fall of the regime'," the slogan of the Arab Spring revolts of 2011.
Activists had used social media to call for nationwide protests against Bouteflika after Friday's weekly Muslim prayers.
Analysts on Saturday played up the scope of the demonstrations in several cities as unprecedented as well as the absence of any serious incidents.
"At the national level and with this size, taking place simultaneously and with the new use of social media, I think it's a first," said Louisa Dris-Ait Hamadouche, a professor of political science at Algiers University.
A foreign diplomat posted in Algiers, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the scale of the demonstrations in defiance of the ban signalled "a change in the political order".
Dris-Ait Hamadouche praised both the demonstrators and the security forces for their apparent restraint.
"Algerians have shown that they can demonstrate without turning it into a riot," she said. As for police, "they were no doubt given instructions to avoid any escalation".
The authorities must have wanted "to avoid any spillover that could damage Algeria's image as a stable state", she said.
Bouteflika, who uses a wheelchair and has rarely been seen in public since suffering a stroke in 2013, announced on February 10 that he will run for another term in an April presidential election.
He spoke of an "unwavering desire to serve" despite his health constraints and pledged to set up an "inclusive national conference" to address political and economic reforms.
The president's office has announced that Bouteflika will travel to Switzerland on Sunday for "routine medical checks" ahead of the April 18 election.
He has had a long battle with illness and has frequently flown to France for treatment.
Bouteflika is Algeria's longest-serving president and a veteran of its independence struggle, who has clung to power since 1999 despite his ill health.
When the Arab Spring erupted in January 2011, Bouteflika rode out the storm by lifting a 19-year state of emergency and using oil revenues to grant pay rises.