Worshippers hold candles as they take part in the Christian Orthodox Holy Fire ceremony at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Awad/File Photo
CAIRO - 25 February 2018: On Sunday, February 25, the Church leaders in Jerusalem made a rare decision, as they announced the closure of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in protest at a new Israeli tax policy and a proposed land expropriation law which they called an unprecedented attack on Christians in the Holy Land.
In a sad ceremony, Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Church leaders closed the doors of the holy site, in presence of representatives of the two Muslim families who were entrusted as the custodians of the ancient key to the church, followed by a statement read by Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, Theophilos III, explaining the reasons of the decision.
Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, Theophilos III, speaks during a news conference with other church leaders in front of the closed doors of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City, February 25, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen "As a measure of protest, we decided to take this unprecedented step of closure of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre," Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic and Catholic leaders said in a statement read out in front of the church's large wooden doors.
They said recent Israeli measures seemed to be "an attempt to weaken the Christian presence in Jerusalem." The church would remain closed until further notice.
The moves include the Jerusalem Municipality's intention to collect property tax (Arnona) from church-owned properties that are not prayer houses and legislation initiated by MK Rachel Azaria (Kulanu) that would limit the ability to sell church-owned land to private hands.
These moves were dubbed by the heads of churches as a “systematic campaign of abuse against Churches and Christians.”
The church is considered the holiest site in Christianity, built where Christians believe Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected, and is a major pilgrimage site.
Pope Francis (L) and Constantinople Patriarch Bartholomew kneel to kiss the Stone of Unction, traditionally claimed as the stone where Jesus' body was prepared for burial, in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in Jerusalem May 25, 2014. REUTERS/Andrew Medichini/Pool/File Photo After the protest move, an Israeli cabinet committee delayed by a week its scheduled consideration on Sunday of a bill that would allow the state to expropriate land in Jerusalem sold by churches to private real estate firms in recent years.
The stated aim of the bill is to protect homeowners against the possibility that private companies will not extend their leases of land on which their houses or apartments stand.
The churches are major property owners in the city. They say such a law would make it harder for them to find buyers for church-owned land - sales that help to cover operating costs of their religious institutions.
"This abhorrent bill ... if approved, would make the expropriation of the lands of churches possible," said the statement by Theophilos III, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, Francesco Patton, the Custos of the Holy Land, and Nourhan Manougian, the Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem.
Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, Theophilos III, speaks during a news conference with other church leaders in front of the closed doors of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City, February 25, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen Rachel Azaria, the lawmaker who sponsored the legislation, said in a statement she agreed to delay the committee's discussion by a week so that "we could work with the churches" to try to resolve the dispute.
The churches' protest was also aimed at the recent cancellation by Israel's Jerusalem municipality of a tax exemption it has granted to church-owned commercial properties in the city.
"This reminds us all of laws of a similar nature which were enacted against the Jews during dark periods in Europe," the church leaders said.
Fatah Movement condemned the Israeli decision; saying that these decisions target the Christian presence in Palestine.
In a press statement released Sunday, Fatah movement's spokesman and member of its Revolutionary Council, Osama al-Qawasmi said that imposing taxes and changing the status quo is a violation against all churches around the world and an attempt to tighten the noose on churches, in order to close them, according to the Jordanian news agency ‘Petra.’
Al-Qawasmi called for a firm international stance against the Israeli measures that contravene all conventions on Christian holy sites in the occupied city.
“Christians in Palestine along with their churches are an integral part of the Palestinian identity,” Al-Qawasmi said in his statement.
“Violating Christians' rights or churches is an assault on all Palestinians,” he said, adding that “we will stand together in defense of our churches and mosques and will reject the racist measures against our people and holy sites.”
Rare historical incidents led to close the Holy Sepulchre
The decision to close the church wasn’t the first of kind; however, it still extremely rare.
In 1990, Christian sites including the Holy Sepulchre were closed for a day to protest the installation of Jewish settlers near the church, located in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem.
Christian sites were shut again for two days in 1999 to protest the planned construction of a mosque near Nazareth's Church of the Annunciation, where tradition holds the Angel Gabriel announced to Mary she was to become the mother of Jesus.
History of the Holy Sepulchre Church
The Holy Sepulchre Church was built in 325/326 AD, upon the decision of the first Christian emperor, Constantine the Great, as two connected churches over the two different holy sites. It represents a very special place to Christians all over the world for containing the tomb of Jesus the Christ and many monuments of his memory, like the Stone of Anointing, where Jesus' body is said to have been anointed before burial, the altar of the Crucifixion, the rock of Calvary as seen in the Chapel of Adam, the Aedicule, the Prison of Christ, etc.
Church of the Holy Sepulchre (1885). Its appearance has essentially not changed since the 12th century. Before turning into a church, the site of the Holy Sepulchre was a temple dedicated to Venus Aphrodite built by Emperor Hadrian in 132 AD in the city of Aelia Capitolina, upon the site of Golgotha, where Jesus of Nazareth was condemned to death, crucified and buried, which resulted in the disappearance of the Tomb for centuries before the decision of Constantine to demolish the temple and founding the church, according to the official website of the
For centuries, descendants of two Muslim families were responsible for keeping the keys of the Holy Sepulchre, Nusseibeh and Joudeh. They were entrusted to them by Saladin, the Muslim conqueror who seized the holy city from the Crusaders in 1187, which represents the very core of Jerusalem’s coexistence between religions.
Adeeb Joudeh (L), a Muslim who says his family was entrusted as the custodians of the ancient key to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, holds the key to the church as he stands in front of the closed church doors, in Jerusalem's Old City, February 25, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen