Churches snub Jerusalem reception over tax dispute with Israeli authorities

Greek orthodox priests walk past religious paraphernalia near the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Arab East Jerusalem.

JERUSALEM - A tax dispute between Israeli authorities in Jerusalem and major churches in the Holy Land heated up on Thursday with church officials deciding to boycott a high-profile event.
The dispute follows a surprise decision by Israeli officials in Jerusalem to begin collecting property taxes from Christian institutions.
The churches' decision not to take part in a New Year reception set for Thursday evening and hosted by Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat was "unprecedented", according to Father David Grenier, a top Franciscan official for the Holy Land.
Earlier this month, the municipality had announced its intention to enforce tax collection from church-owned commercial property, saying exemptions for religious institutions apply only to places of worship or religious teaching.
The move surprised church leaders, who on Thursday issued a joint statement calling the measure "contrary to the historic position between the churches within the Holy City of Jerusalem and the civil authorities across the centuries".
The 13 heads of the churches, including Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Armenian, Evangelical and others, said the measure would "jeopardise" their ability to conduct their work, which includes not only religious but also social services to those in need.
Bank accounts for a number of churches had been frozen, church officials said, but no other move had yet been taken by the city.
The city had calculated the debts of the 887 assets belonging to the various churches to be 657,180,520 shekels (over $190 million, 150 million euros).
Wolfgang Schmidt, provost of the German Protestant Holy Land institutions, said the municipality's move was not coordinated with them.
He called the decision to not attend the New Year reception an act of "solidarity with the churches in Jerusalem."
"We cannot do business as usual after that kind of approach," he said in an email, noting church representatives would be meeting with municipality officials next week on the issue.
A spokeswoman for the mayor said that while the municipality will continue to preserve the "full freedom of worship" of Christian institutions, "hotels, halls and businesses cannot be exempt from municipal taxes simply because they are owned by the churches".
"These are not houses of worship, which are exempt from municipal property taxes, but rather assets used for commercial activities," the spokeswoman said in a statement.