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Rome Reports

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Card. O'Brien on Jerusalem tax controversy: Government must restore balance

The doors to the holiest Christian site in the world were closed on Sunday in protest of what is being deemed as political persecution. 

The closure of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was organized by various Christian leaders in Jerusalem in response to what they call “a systematic campaign of abuse” through proposed tax and land seizure legislation. 

In Rome, Cardinal Edwin O'Brien, Grand Master of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre, says the move was one of “desperation” and a necessary response to continued oppression. 

Grand Master of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre

“Pressure has to be put on the government to restore the delicate balance that has always existed in these areas in the Holy Land. Right now, that balance has been way overrun, and it's not going to help relations. It's not going to help the poorest and the neediest in the Holy Land, and that's why we're there in our works of charity.”

Mayor Nir Barkat of Jerusalem has proposed allowing the municipal government to collect retroactive property taxes on Church-owned properties where there are no places of worship – such as hospitals, shelters and schools. 

In addition, a separate “Bill of Church Lands” would allow for the expropriation of land sold by the Church to private buyers. Officials argue this type of sale makes the future uncertain for residents living on Church properties.

Religious leaders say the legislation defies the Status Quo guaranteeing the Church's rights and privileges in the Holy Land. Cardinal O'Brien sees it as a result of differing definitions of religious freedom.  

Grand Master of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre

“The government says, 'Freedom of religion means you can worship in your church or chapel, but once you come outside that it's freedom of worship they're talking about.' We speak about freedom of religion – which means works of charity are one in the same, complementary to our worship. Therefore, we can't see it justified to tax hospitals, nursing homes and schools. We might have to go out of business.”

Israel's response to the protest was swift, as the country's prime minister released a statement on Tuesday afternoon announcing the municipal government's suspension of the tax collection. In addition, the Church lands bill has been put on hold. All parties have agreed to establish dialogue and formulate a solution.