Catholic Cardinal Protests ‘Unprecedented Discrimination Against Christians’ in Jerusalem

Christian worshippers queue to visit the Tomb of Christ, where according to Christian belief the body of Jesus was laid after his death, inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Jerusalem's Old City, on March 23, 2016.

In a sharply worded statement Monday, Cardinal Edwin O’Brien announced the closing of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem to protest what he called Jerusalem’s “systematic campaign against the churches and the Christian community in the Holy Land.”

Cardinal O’Brien, the former archbishop of Baltimore and present Grand Master of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, criticized a decision by the Jerusalem municipality to start collecting taxes on 887 Church-owned properties in the city.

“Betraying international treaties and centuries of practice, all Christian properties, except churches themselves, are being taxed tens of billions of dollars,” the cardinal stated. “This includes hundreds of agencies, including Christian schools, hospitals, homes for the needy, health care facilities, and pilgrimage centers such as the Notre Dame Center in Jerusalem.”

“Many church assets are being frozen, fines threatened, and hundreds of thousands of dollars seized from Christian churches in an effort that will severely curtail Christian freedom of practice,” O’Brien continued. “These are acts of unprecedented discrimination against Christians.”

In his announcement, the cardinal called the events of recent days in Jerusalem “alarming” and described the decision to close the doors of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre a “a rare and desperate initiative to keep Christian life alive in the Holy Land.”

Asking for prayers “in light of this further evidence of Christian discrimination,” the cardinal also encouraged members of his order to “bring these anti-Christian discriminatory actions to the attention of government leaders.”

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat has defended the new legislation, saying that the city had refrained from such tax collections until now only because the state did not allow it.

Cardinal O’Brien’s statement follows on a joint statement issued Sunday by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, the Custody of the Holy Land and the Armenian Patriarchate, which similarly called the move by the municipality a “systematic campaign against the churches and the Christian community in the Holy Land, in flagrant violation of the existing status quo.”

The “offensive” campaign has recently reached an unprecedented level, the statement said, 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 – a step that is contrary to the historic position of the churches within the Holy City of Jerusalem and their relationship with the civil authorities.”

The church leaders called the measures a breach in “existing agreements and international obligations which guarantee the rights and the privileges of the churches,” aimed at weakening “the Christian presence in Jerusalem.”

“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,” it said.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is one of the holiest and most visited sites in Christianity and is believed to be the tomb of Jesus Christ where he rose from the dead on Easter Sunday.

According to the Jerusalem Post, of the more than two million Christian pilgrims who visited Israel in 2013, 90 percent of them visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

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