One of Christianity's holiest sites, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Jesus Christ is said to have been crucified, could close down over a dispute with an Israeli water company, a priest has said.

Greek Orthodox priest Isidoros Fakitsas said on Friday that the church's bank account has been frozen as the result of a long-standing dispute with the company.

He said that the move has impaired the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in its ability to pay bills and salaries.
As a result, the church is considering closing for a day in protest, shutting the doors to one of Christianity's most popular pilgrimage sites.

The Greek Orthodox patriarchate is a joint custodian of the church, however, and any such measure would need the agreement of the Catholic and Armenian churches, which are co-custodians.

"Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III has spoken [to church officials] about taking measures ... in protest at Israeli actions against the church," said Dimitri Diliani, president of the National Christian Coalition in the Holy Land.

"He is consulting with the heads of churches to take the drastic measure of shutting down the Church of the Holy Sepulchre," Diliani, a Greek Orthodox Palestinian, said.

"It's not a matter of money, it's a change in the status quo that has protected the church for hundreds of years, it's a way to pressure the churches and to introduce new Israeli-designed measures," said Diliani.

Special case

The Greek Orthodox Church contends that the Holy Sepulchre was always treated as a special case and exempted from water fees, unlike other historic churches in the region.

The account was blocked two weeks ago and lawyers were hired to address the matter in court, Fakitsas said. He insisted the church will be able to function despite the blocked bank account and that if matters become too difficult, it will try and find an alternative, such as opening a new bank account.

The church for decades was exempt by the different leaderships which ruled over Jerusalem's Old City from paying water bills until the Israeli water company began pressing it to pay up a few years ago.

Fakitsas, the superior of the Greek Orthodox church, said an agreement was reached after months of negotiations. Under the deal, various denominations in the church would pay their monthly bill.

A debt of some 9 million shekels ($2.31 million) was to be forgotten, he said.

To the surprise of the church elders, however, its account was blocked two weeks ago, making it impossible to pay stipends of some 500 priests and monks, 2,000 teachers and the running costs of over 30 Christian schools that the church runs in the Palestinian territories and Jordan, Issa Musleh, a church spokesperson, said.

The Israeli Tourism Ministry said the issue is between the Church and the Jerusalem municipality. But because of the great importance of the site, the ministry is now trying to mediate between the two sides and hopes the issue will be resolved quickly.

Source: Agencies