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Pilgrims locked out as Jerusalem holy site shut for second day

By AFP - Feb 26,2018 - Last updated at Feb 26,2018

Two Christian women pray by the closed door of the main entrance of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City of Jerusalem on Monday, after Christian leaders took the rare step of closing the church, seen as the holiest site in Christianity, the previous day at noon (AFP photo)

OCCUPIED JERUSALEM — The Jerusalem church built at what many consider the holiest site in Christianity remained closed for a second day Monday to protest Israeli tax measures and a proposed law, leaving hundreds of disappointed and perplexed pilgrims locked outside.

Christian leaders took the rare step of closing the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Sunday at noon in a bid to pressure Israeli authorities into abandoning the measures.

They said the church, a major pilgrimage site where thousands visit daily, would be closed until further notice.

Church officials said on Monday it was not clear when it would reopen, depending on discussions with Christian leaders and occupation authorities.

The church is built where Christians believe Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected. Custody of it is shared by the Greek Orthodox, Armenian and Roman Catholic denominations.

Disappointed tourists gathered on Monday in front of its large wooden doors in Jerusalem's Old City hoping they would have the chance to visit, some having difficulty understanding why it was closed.

Some held an improvised prayer around a wooden cross.

"We were told it's political. It is disheartening — it is such a holy place," said Aleana Doughty, a 35-year-old dental hygienist, visiting with a group from the United States.

Michael Katten and his wife Vanagakshi, visiting from India, were also locked out. Vanagakshi said she had promised to bring her mother something from the church and say a prayer.

“It is silly that they cannot solve this,” Michael Katten said.

Christian leaders are angry over attempts by Israeli occupation authorities in Jerusalem to enforce tax collection on church property they consider commercial, saying exemptions only apply to places of worship or religious teaching.

They also say legislation being considered by Israel would allow church property to be expropriated.

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini told reporters in Brussels “we hope that a solution can be found quickly”.

“Jerusalem is a holy city to the three monotheistic religions. The special status and character of the city must be maintained and respected by all.”

The Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, located near the Holy Sepulchre, was also closed in protest on Monday.


Major Jerusalem landowner


Israeli occupation’s mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, says the city is due 650 million shekels ($186 million/152 million euros) in uncollected taxes on church properties.

He stresses the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and all other churches are exempt, with the changes only affecting establishments like “hotels, halls and businesses” owned by the churches.

Christian leaders say the measure jeopardises their ability to conduct their work, which also includes social services to those in need.

A separate bill seeks to allay the fears of Israelis who live in homes on lands previously held by the Greek Orthodox Church and which were allegedly sold to private developers, according to the lawmaker proposing the legislation.

Recent land sales by the Greek Orthodox Church — a major landowner in Jerusalem — to unknown buyers have drawn fire from both Israelis and Palestinians.

The Orthodox Church denies the sales have taken place.

Palestinians fear the reported sales would favour Israeli settlement construction in East Jerusalem, while Israelis are concerned over private developers’ intentions for the land.

The bill would allow certain lands of the Greek Orthodox Church to be handed over to the state.

“This reminds us all of laws of a similar nature which were enacted against the Jews during a dark period in Europe,” Christian leaders said in a statement on Sunday.

They also said recent Israeli measures seemed to be “an attempt to weaken the Christian presence in Jerusalem”.


Rare move


The decision to close the church was 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 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.

The cave where Christians believe Jesus was buried is located within the Holy Sepulchre, while the traditional site of his crucifixion is a short walk away, also inside the church.

The tomb is encased in an elaborate shrine, whose recent restoration was unveiled in March 2017 after months of delicate work.

Visits are expected to increase for Easter, which falls on April 1 for Western Christians and April 8 for the Orthodox.

“A lot of people spent a lot of money to come see the most pivotal place of their faith,” said Father Kevin Peek, a 47-year-old visiting with a group of 27 people from the United States.

“So of course they are disappointed. But we looked it up on the Internet, we read the statement of the churches and we completely understand.”

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