The heads of Christian Churches in Jerusalem have expressed grave concern over renewed moves by the Israeli authorities to tax church buildings and properties.
While previous such moves have ended in failure, the Israelis have not tried hard to mask their intention to persist in their efforts to impose an arnona (property tax) on properties owned by the various churches, including those which have been vacant for some time.
In a statement issued on 13 April 2011, the Heads of Churches of the Holy City of Jerusalem, a loose conglomeration of the 13 Christian churches officially recognised by the Israeli state, warned of dire consequences that would ensue should Israel carry out its plans.
“Such imposition would constitute a radical departure from the consistent practice of every previous State to have governed any part of the Holy Land, including the Ottoman empire, the British Mandate, the Hashemite Kingdom and the State of Israel itself,” the church leaders said.
“It would represent a significant worsening of the conditions of the Churches in the Holy Land. It would also be in direct contradiction of the mandate of the United Nations Organisation in General Assembly resolution 181, of 29 November, 1947, as it applied not only to Jerusalem but also to the two national states that it authorises to be established in the Holy Land,” they warned.
The churches argued the Israeli move would be in contravention of the so-called “status quo” agreements promulgated in the 19th Century, which have governed relations between the churches and governments since Ottoman times. Under the terms of the status quo, the Ottomans pledged to exempt church properties from taxation, recognised their rights and granted them special privileges, in documents termed 'firmans'.
One Ottoman ruler, Sultan Chakmak, even went so far as to damn any “accursed [person] or son of accursed” who dared impugn on the rights and privileges of the Armenian church, in an edict engraved in a marble plaque that hangs at the entrance to the Convent of St James, seat of the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem.
Subsequent administrators of the Holy Land, like the Jordanians, expressed their support of the status quo and adhered to its tenets.
The churches warned that “any erosion of the understanding of the status quo agreements between the State of Israel and Christian churches threatens the well-being of the Christian churches and their ability to continue the various ministries of pastoral care, education and health care which they provide.”
They also complained that an arnona on Church properties would “contradict the solemn promises given to the Churches by successive Israeli governments, most notably confirmed in the wake of the June 1967 war” that saw Israel overrun Jerusalem and most of the West Bank.
The church statement minced no words in describing the Israeli move as “aggressive,” expressing astonishment at the timing, in a hint at the unpredictable political disturbances spreading across the region.
“The Heads of Churches cannot understand how it could be in the interest of the State to take such aggressive action with regard to the Churches, especially at this time,” it said.
It urged official relations to remain on a correct and friendly basis, confident that “such will indeed turn out to be the continuing choice of the government of Israel.”
”The Heads of Churches believe this respect is essential for the ongoing health of the relationship between the three Abrahamaic faiths which exist in Israel as well as the relationship each has with the government of Israel,” the statement said.
The churches are particularly concerned that the “abrupt imposition of unprecedented new taxation on the Christian Churches could only come at the expense of their ability to maintain their presence in the Holy Land and to continue their ministries of pastoral care, education, welfare and health.”
The heads of Churches in Jerusalem include the Greek Orthodox Patriarch, the Latin Patriarch, the Armenian Patriarch, the Custos of the Holy Land and the Armenian Catholic, Coptic Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox, Greek Catholic, Maronite, Syrian Orthodox, Syrian Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran Archbishops and Bishops.