Church of the Holy Sepulcher closes in protest of new policies

A general view of the interior of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre during the Palm Sunday Easter procession in Jerusalem's Old City

In the presence of Franciscan and Armenian religious leaders, Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos read out a strongly-worded statement and then locked the ancient doors of the church in Jerusalem's Old City, believed by Christians to be the exact location of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

But the separate leaders issued a joint statement saying the move was "in protest at persistent moves to intimidate Christians and discriminate against churches in the Holy Land".

The ministerial panel is set to discuss the church lands bill, which is created to put an end to most of the major land sales carried out by the churches to private real estate companies.

Regarding Israel's proposed land appropriation law, the government warned of the serious consequences of such law, stressing that if passed, it would lead to the seizure of lands belonging to churches.

"These actions breach existing agreements and global obligations which guarantee the rights and the privileges of the churches, in what seems an attempt to weaken the Christian presence in Jerusalem".

The government spokesperson noted that these measures violate worldwide and humanitarian laws and arrangements of the historical situation that has been existing for many years in this regard, as churches have always been exempted from paying such taxes to the city's civic authorities.

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Rachel Azaria, a parliament member for the Kulanu party who sponsored the government's land bill, said it was meant to protect people who own homes on leased land the churches have sold since 2010. I would not allow that the residents of Jerusalem would close this debt, " Barkat said as cited by the Jerusalem Post.

The Christian leaders called the Knesset bill "abhorrent" and claimed that it is similar to laws "which were enacted against the Jews during dark periods in Europe". The church leaders accused Israel of trying to "weaken the Christian presence in 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.

But the Church remained closed as pilgrims from throughout the world approached to find the doors bolted closed.

It is highly unusual for the Greek Orthodox, Armenian and Catholic denominations, who all share custody of the church, to agree to a stance as dramatic as closing the whole site and tensions between denominations often run high over control of its various chapels and compartments.

Momani, who is also the government's spokesperson, said that such measures target the historical existence of Christians, who are a key component of Jerusalemites.

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