Education and health ministries provided by the Diocese of Jerusalem could be at risk if the Jerusalem Municipality goes ahead with plans to make churches pay Arnona, or municipal taxes.
For centuries, religious bodies in the city have been exempt from such taxes, but the municipality is now demanding millions of pounds from religious groups as part of an ongoing dispute with the country’s finance ministry. The Anglican Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem runs a range of social care initiatives across its diocese, which includes Jerusalem, Jordan, Palestine, Israel and Lebanon, as well as 18 kindergartens, schools, colleges and vocational training centres, and seven hospital and health-care centres. Sources say that its ability to continue these ministries and the support it provides vulnerable people is at risk if it has to divert funds to pay the taxes.
The Times of Israel reports that the Anglican Episcopal Church of Jerusalem has been hit with a bill of almost $2.5 million (CDN) in back taxes. In total, the municipality is claiming about $230 million (CDN) from 887 properties in the city belonging to churches and a number of UN agencies. The newspaper reports that the Catholic Church has been billed about $4.25 million (CDN), the Armenian Church about $710,000 (CDN) and the Greek Orthodox Church about $177,000 (CDN).
The mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, has placed a block on churches’ bank accounts: the diocese of Jerusalem had two accounts frozen without notice. The new taxes are part of an ongoing dispute between the mayor and the country’s finance minister, Moshe Kahlon, over the amount of funds the city receives from the national government. Historically, the State of Israel has prevented the municipality from collecting taxes from churches under a long-standing agreement to protect places of worship. But Barkat says he will collect the taxes unless the national state refunds the difference to the city.
The patriarchs and leaders of churches in Jerusalem have united against the move, saying that the collection of the Arnona taxes “is contrary to the historic position between the Churches within the Holy City of Jerusalem and the civil authorities across the centuries.”
In a joint statement, the church leaders, including the Anglican Archbishop in Jerusalem, Suheil Dawani, say: “The civil authorities have always recognised and respected the great contribution of the Christian Churches, which invest billions in building schools, hospitals, and homes, many for the elderly and disadvantaged, in the Holy Land.
“We declare that such a measure both undermines the sacred character of Jerusalem, and jeopardises the Church’s ability to conduct its ministry in this land on behalf of its communities and the world-wide church.”
They continue: “We request the Municipality to retract their statement and ensure that the status quo which was sanctioned by the sacred history is maintained, and the character of the Holy City of Jerusalem is not violated.
“We stand firm and united in our position to defend our presence and properties.”
In addition to Suheil, the statement was co-signed by Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III; Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Patriarch Nourhan Manougian; Latin Patriarchate’s Apostolic Administrator, Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa; Custos of the Holy Land, Fr. Francesco Patton; Archbishop Anba Antonious, of the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate; Archbishop Swerios Malki Murad, from the Syrian Orthodox Patriarchate; Archbishop Aba Embakob, of the Ethiopian Orthodox Patriarchate; Archbishop Joseph-Jules Zerey, from the Greek-Melkite-Catholic Patriarchate; Archbishop Mosa El-Hage, of the Maronite Patriarchal Exarchate; Bishop Ibrahim Sani Azar, from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land; Bishop Pierre Malki, of the Syrian Catholic Patriarchal Exarchate; and Monsignor Georges Dankaye’, from the Armenian Catholic Patriarchal Exarchate.