Amid tax feud with municipality, Christian holy site had been closed since Sunday, locking out thousands out of tourists and pilgrims
The grand wooden doors of Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre reopened Wednesday after a three-day closure in protest of a municipal and federal plan to collect back-taxes on church-owned properties.
It comes after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat announced Tuesday evening the establishment of a negotiating team, led by Likud Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, to resolve the dispute that pitted churches against state.
“The team will negotiate with the representatives of the churches to resolve the issue,” a statement from the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office read. “As a result, the Jerusalem Municipality is suspending the collection actions it has taken in recent weeks.”
In this respect, Jerusalem officials had planned to collect about $185 million in back-taxes on 887 commercial properties owned by churches that do not have houses of worship.
Mayor Barkat argued in a series of tweets earlier this week that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, like all of Jerusalem’s churches, synagogues and mosques is exempt from paying municipal taxes and that would remain unchanged.
Still, the heads of the three churches that jointly run the Holy Sepulchre—the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Patriarch and Roman Catholic—took the dramatic step of closing the holy site, shutting out thousands of people, many of whom visited Israel specifically to see the place where Christians believe Jesus was resurrected.
Pedro and Ana Cirdoso, a Portuguese couple interviewed by The Media Line on Tuesday, said they would revisit the site Wednesday morning, hoping it would reopen before their flight home in the afternoon.
Others interviewed by The Media Line, including Ben Smith, a tourist from North Carolina, expressed disappointment that they had missed their only chance to tour the church.
“It was the trip of a lifetime. Maybe next time,” Smith said Tuesday.
After the Holy Sepulchre was shuttered, various religious officials showed solidarity with Christian leaders. Sheikh Wasef al-Bakri, acting supreme judge in the Islamic Court of Jerusalem, visited the entrance to the church Tuesday and told The Media Line, “this is a place of prayer, not a place to make money.”
For her part, Ana Cirdoso believes political issues effectively turned the Church of the Holy Sepulchre into a hostage.
“Jesus wouldn’t do that,” she told The Media Line, her husband nodding in agreement. “All of us are here to see this holy place, so I think they should solve the problems in other ways.”