A sign affixed to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem reads: “Enough is Enough: Stop the Persecution of Churches.” The church at the site where Jesus is believed to have been crucified, buried, and resurrected is now temporarily closed. This protest is not against the displacement and extermination of Christians throughout the Middle East but a stunt by the Christian churches responsible for the site in protest against Israeli legislation and a new city tax policy.
The Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III, Franciscan Custos of the Holy Land Father Francesco Patton, and the Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem Nourhan Manougian have released a joint statement on the so-called “Municipal threats and the discriminatory ‘Church Lands Bill.’”
Just what are the “municipal threats” and what is the “discrimination”? Despite the firestorm of media attention over the weekend, the technicalities and nuances remain convoluted. Reportedly, the main issues include: requiring church businesses to pay taxes; placing liens on church accounts until debts are paid; and expropriating lands churches sell to private buyers.
In an inflammatory statement just under 400 words, the church leaders refer to the legislation and tax policies three times as a “systematic campaign” and once as a “systematic attack” against churches and Christians in the Holy Land. The trio states: “Recently, this systematic and offensive campaign has reached an unprecedented level as the Jerusalem municipality issued scandalous collection notices and orders of seizure of Church assets, properties and bank accounts for alleged debts of punitive municipal taxes.”
Religious Activity Is Exempt, Commercial Activity Is Not
Nir Barkat, the mayor of Jerusalem, explained, “The Church of the Holy Sepulcher and prayer houses of all churches are exempt from municipal taxes; there is no change in this and it will continue. But does it make sense to anyone that commercial areas like hotels, halls, and businesses should be exempt from municipal taxes only because they are owned by churches?” Sounds like a reasonable point.
What does not, however, seem reasonable is that the church leaders’ statement hyperbolizes, “The greatest victims in this are those impoverished families who will go without food and housing, as well as the children who will be unable to attend school.” How the proposed tax on church revenue will lead to famine and homelessness and deprive children of education remains unclear.
The Christian leaders deem the bill “discriminatory and racist,” targeting “solely the properties of the Christian community in the Holy Land.” This makes no sense. How is the bill “discriminatory and racist” against Christianity, which is universal and not racial? Is it “racist” against Arabs? Armenians? Greeks? Italians? Filipinos? North Americans?
The bill, moreover, “would make the expropriation of the lands of churches possible,” according to the Christian leaders. This is incorrect. As reported by Haaretz, the bill proposed by Knesset Member Rachel Azaria would not endanger church property, but aims at protecting Jerusalem residents whose homes are located on lands churches have previously owned, in the event that the churches would sell these lands to private real estate companies.
Just when it seems unlikely the exaggeration can go further, the church leaders allude to Nazism with this ominous reference: “This reminds us all of laws of a similar nature which were enacted against the Jews during dark periods in Europe.” While churches certainly have a right to contest the proposed Israeli legislation, we should be above inflammatory accusations, over-the-top Holocaust allusions, and hyperbolic allegations of discrimination and racism.
Business Taxes Are Not Discrimination
Property rights can be disputed and negotiated, even in the Middle East, where a plurality of factors including religion, history, and geography add to the drama. This tumultuous context in mind, we come to the crux of the matter: There is real persecution in the Middle East and municipal taxes are not it.
It would have been one thing for church authorities to close the Church of the Holy Sepulcher to raise awareness about the real persecuted church, particularly during this season of Lent. It would have been one thing to take this drastic gesture in a solemn act of solidarity with the Christians who are chased out of their ancestral homelands by Islamists in the conflict-ridden countries of Iraq and Syria, or with the endangered Christian community living precariously under the rule of Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
But no. It is easy to tack up posters or to light up the Colosseum in red. It is hard to take real action concerning the persecution of Christians in the Middle East. Fighting Israel over tax policies instead of jihadists over terrorism reminds me of campus feminists who are up in arms over sex-neutral language because that is so much easier than worrying about an Islamist regime in Iran arresting women for removing their hijabs.
Insisting that church businesses pay municipal taxes is hardly persecution. There are many serious cases of actual, contemporary persecution, and if we misapply the term, we may find we have no adequate words left for today’s truest Christian martyrs.
Not Unfairly Torching Israel Is Good for Christians
Ultimately, closing the Church of the Holy Sepulcher hurts Christian pilgrims more than it does Israelis. It’s the most important Christian holy site in the world, and the most visited site by Christian pilgrims in Israel. They are already experiencing disappointment because of its closure.
When Pope John Paul II made a pilgrimage to Israel in March 2000, he placed a prayer in the Western Wall. In it, he prayed that Christians would “commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant.”
In their inflammatorily expressed zeal to preserve preferential financial arrangements, these church leaders may be harming a relationship that is good for them and Christians across the world. How can we aspire not only to resolve disputes and tensions, but to truly deepen this genuine brotherhood? Perhaps one way is for Christians to think creatively about how we can express gratitude for Israel’s legal protection for all faiths and preservation of access to religious sites important to people of many religions.
Perhaps Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land could first visit Yad Vashem and Mount Herzl before they venture to trace Jesus’ footsteps, to appreciate how the suffering and sacrifices of the Jewish people contributed to the heroic founding of the modern state of Israel that preserves Christian access to sacred sites. In contrast with its neighbors, Israel is the Middle East’s only liberal democracy, and the only place Christians enjoy freedom from religious persecution. That’s ultimately far more important than preferential tax breaks for church-owned businesses.