Following international pressure and rising protests from Palestinian Christians, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced the formation of a committee to discuss the imposition of the property tax, or arnona, on Jerusalem’s churches.
The decision came following a meeting between Netanyahu and the Israeli mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barakat, and after one of the holiest sites in Christianity, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, closed its doors on Sunday in protest against the proposed legislation.
The committee will be headed by Tzachi Hanegbi, the Israeli minister of regional cooperation.
Al Jazeera’s correspondent Walid al-Omari, reporting from the occupied West Bank city of Ramallah, said that tax procedures on churches and their properties would be frozen under the new arrangement.
“Accounts belonging to churches and monasteries will be cancelled,” he said.
“Furthermore, a new law proposed by Israeli right-wing politicians that will allow Israeli authorities to confiscate properties of the churches if they do not pay taxes, will be suspended.”
Israeli-controlled Jerusalem municipality said that the churches owed $53m in commercial back taxes.
However, the three Christian denominations have countered that this was a plan to “weaken the Christian presence in Jerusalem”.
“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,” they said in a statement on Sunday.
“These actions breach existing agreements and international obligations, which guarantee the rights and privileges of the Churches.”
The statement was signed by the Roman Catholic, Armenian and Greek Orthodox church leaders.
The leader of the Christian National Gathering in the Holy Land, Dimitri Deliani, said that the churches had won this battle against the Israeli occupation, which he described as a “war”.
Hana Amira, the head of the Supreme Presidential Committee for Church Affairs, told Palestinian government news agency Wafa that the stance of the heads of the churches, as well as the closure of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, had foiled the Israeli plan temporarily.
The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) had strongly criticised Israel’s decision to tax church property in Jerusalem.
“We reject these measures, which are part of ongoing efforts [by Israel] to change the status of Christian and Muslim holy places [in Jerusalem] and systematically restrict their existence,” the OIC said in a statement on Tuesday.
It voiced solidarity with Jerusalem’s churches, warning against “the seriousness of these unprecedented Israeli actions which constitute a flagrant violation of international law and conventions”.
The OIC also urged the international community to “exert pressure on Israel, the occupying power, to compel it to abide by its responsibilities under international law and the Geneva Conventions and immediately reverse these illegal measures and continued violations against the city of Jerusalem, its people and holy sites”.
“The only solution is for the occupation to completely reverse its decision,” he said.
Earlier in the week, Jordan had expressed support for Christian leaders in Jerusalem.
Mohammad al-Momani, government spokesperson, said his country was in “full solidarity” with the churches, and that Israel’s measures “violate international and humanitarian laws”.