In a rare move, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem has been indefinitely shut in protest against what church leaders say is “discriminatory” Israeli policy aimed at weakening Christian presence in the holy city.
In a statement released on Sunday, church leaders said Israel was violating the status quo at the site, which is one of the holiest in Christianity, at an “unprecedented level”.
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The church is believed by many Christians to be the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial, and is a major pilgrimage site.
Referring to a bill recently introduced in Israel‘s parliament that would allow the Israeli state to take over church properties leased to private companies, they said: “The systematic campaign of abuse against Churches and Christians reaches now its peak as a discriminatory and racist bill that targets solely the properties of the Christian community …”
The statement, signed by Roman Catholic, Armenian and Greek Orthodox church leaders, also condemned plans by the Israeli government to begin imposing taxes on church properties.
“These actions breach existing agreements and international obligations, which guarantee the rights and privileges of the Churches, in what seems as an attempt to weaken the Christian presence in Jerusalem,” the press release read.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is located in occupied East Jerusalem’s Old City.
In response to the decision, the Palestinian chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said the move “should be a reminder of the need to end the Israeli occupation”.
Marred by controversy
Jerusalem’s church authorities have been increasingly vocal in recent months, after leaders from the Greek Orthodox Church were accused of selling land to extremist Jewish settlers in prime locations of the Old City.
In August, a Jerusalem court approved the purchase of the property by Ateret Cohanim – a settler group that has been working for decades to evict Palestinians from their homes and shops in the Old City.
The Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church, Theophilos III, who is one of the statement’s signatories, is believed to have been behind the sale, which caused hundreds of Palestinians to call for his removal.
Aleef Sabbagh, a member of the Central Orthodox Council, said that while the move to close the church is welcomed, he believes it may be a “charade”.
“The reaction against the taxes is part of a charade to sell Theophilos III as the face of nationalism and resistance to Israeli policies,” he told Al Jazeera from Jerusalem.
“It has always been our demand to close the church, but he always used to refuse, and would allege that he was under pressure from the Israeli authorities not to do so. Then, he would solve problems with Israel in a way that no one knows”.
Sabbagh says that although Palestinian Christians support any moves to deter the Israeli occupation’s encroachment on their holy sites, there needs to be more transparency within the church.
“The facts about what happens behind closed doors is not made public to us. We need to make everything public, so that we can defend ourselves properly against Israel.”