ON SUNDAY, Feb. 25, 2018, Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Church representatives jointly decided to close the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem—over which they jointly have jurisdiction—in protest of two Israeli policies. We spoke with Andrea Krogmann, the Jerusalem correspondent for the German Catholic news agency KNA. The pilgrimage site re-opened on Feb. 28, after Israeli authorities suspended the contested measures.
What can you tell us about the decision to close the Church of the Holy Sepulcher? Was this church ever closed for political reasons before?
This is not the first time the church has been closed in this way. At least once before there was a closure, in connection with the intifada, in solidarity with the Muslims apparently. However, it is a most unusual step and a relatively drastic one.
Church leaders described what they alleged was a “systematic campaign” against the Christian communities in the Holy Land and a “blatant breach of the existing status quo.”
According to the traditional status quo, dating back to Ottoman times, Churches are exempt from taxes. Now Israel has for a long time been attempting to change this, arguing that the commercial enterprises of the Churches should not be excluded from property taxes. So it is not about the churches and places of worship themselves, but about Church-run facilities, such as guesthouses and schools.
The Churches are resisting these attempts, pointing to the centuries-old traditional status quo agreements. Moreover, the Catholic Church is calling attention to the decades-long, ongoing negotiations between Israel and the Vatican that are aimed at clarifying these very questions.
So why have things suddenly escalated in this way?
Because the Jerusalem city authorities have recently taken concrete steps to enforce these taxes on the Churches, including freezing Church bank accounts among other measures. But a second issue is in play. There is a proposed law intended to allow the state of Israel to confiscate land sold by the Churches to private investors, and to be able to do so retroactively.
The background to this is the fact that in some particular suburbs of Jerusalem a great many apartment blocks have been built on land leased or sold by the Church, more specifically, by the Greek Orthodox Church. There are people living on this land who now would find themselves in an insecure situation. According to its sponsors, the proposed law is aimed at protecting these people. However, the Church sees it as a form of discrimination—for if land sold by the Church can later be confiscated, then no one will wish to purchase such land in the future; the risk would be too great.
How is this going to be resolved? According to the latest news, there has been some degree of rapprochement between the two sides.
Franciscan Father Francesco Patton, Custos of the Holy Land, said that the Churches had been looking for a signal from the authorities. Yesterday (Feb. 28, 2018), Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed with the mayor of Jerusalem to establish a working party on the Israeli side to work out a compromise and negotiate with the Churches. As part of this agreement between Netanyahu and Jerusalem‘s Mayor Nir Barkat, it was decided that, for now, the city will renounce imposing any further taxes on the Churches, and that, for the time being, no further legislation will be pursued in regard to Church property. The Churches immediately responded and reopened the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
We are now approaching Holy Week and the feast of Easter. What is the general mood among the pilgrims and others visiting the Holy Places?
Statistics from last year and also from the first few months of this year indicate that the number of people visiting the country is increasing. The atmosphere is pretty relaxed. Pilgrims continue to arrive, and in considerable numbers. The guest houses are pretty much fully booked, though there are some surprising exceptions. For example the “Notre Dame“ hostel—a very famous pilgrim hostel in the center of the Old City – is still not fully booked for Holy Week and Easter. But, generally speaking, the atmosphere is good and things are very busy in the city.