Jerusalem, Undefined | AFP | Christian leaders took the rare step on Sunday of closing Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built where tradition holds Jesus was buried, in protest at Israeli tax measures and a proposed property law.
It was not clear how long the closure of the church, announced by Christian officials at a news conference and which began at around noon (1000 GMT), would last. Church officials said only that it would be until further notice.
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.
“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 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 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.
Christian leaders have been angered over attempts by Israeli authorities in Jerusalem to enforce tax collection on church property they consider commercial, saying exemptions only apply to places of worship or religious teaching.
Separately, Christian leaders say legislation being considered by Israel’s government would allow church property to be expropriated.
“This reminds us all of laws of a similar nature which were enacted against the Jews during a dark period in Europe,” the statement said.
An Israeli ministerial committee on Sunday delayed action on the bill for a week.
– ‘Very disappointing’ –
Confused tourists stood in front of the church’s closed doors in Jerusalem’s Old City after the announcement, as tour guides sought to explain why they could not visit.
One man knelt and prayed as workers began putting metal barriers around the entrance.