Jerusalem's mayor picks a fight with Christianity — and loses fast
National Post, 1 March 2018
Jerusalem’s mayor, Nir Barkat, levied massive back taxes on the Christian churches in the Holy City as part of a financial ploy to squeeze money out of the Israeli national government
JERUSALEM — It was a major miscalculation at a most inopportune time.
Jerusalem’s mayor, Nir Barkat, levied massive back taxes on the Christian churches in the Holy City as part of a financial ploy to squeeze money out of the Israeli national government. It was cynical, it was belligerent, and on Tuesday the mayor was forced into a humiliating climbdown after Christians closed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre — the holiest Christian shrine in the world — in protest.
Barkat complains that his Jerusalem municipality is insufficiently funded. So he declared that he would arbitrarily end the property tax exemption for church properties in Jerusalem. Properties for worship would remain untaxed, but those used for other purposes, including pilgrim guesthouses, would no longer be exempt. In doing so, he was changing the status of church properties in a radical way — they have never been subject to such taxation, not under the modern state of Israel, not under the previous British Mandate, not under the Ottoman Empire stretching back 500 years.
But having calculated, without warning or consultation, that the churches owed some 650 million shekels ($240 million Canadian), Barkat sent out arrears notices and froze the bank accounts of some churches, overnight compromising their ability to pay their own employees.
Israelis here — both Jewish and Christian — were in general agreement that Barkat wanted to create an international problem for the Israeli government, which would then presumably resolve the situation by giving the Jerusalem municipality the money if they agreed to drop their taxation plans.
The Christian churches responded rather more vigorously than Barkat expected, shuttering the Church of the Holy Sepulchre indefinitely on Sunday. By Tuesday, the national government slapped Barkat down, forcing him to shelve the taxation plan while a commission was struck to examine property issues.
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