Zara Kulish, Staff Writer
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem has been a center for pilgrimages for Christians for a long time. The place on which the church is built is identified as both the site of the crucifiction and that of Jesus’ tomb. After converting to Christianity, the Roman Emperor Constantine I had Jerusalem’s temple to Venus demolished in order to make way for a church. In the process of knocking down the temple, the workers discovered what they believed to be the tomb of Jesus Christ. In 326, Saint Helena, Constantine’s mother, made a pilgrimage to the site, and discovered a piece of the “True Cross” (the one on which Jesus was crucified), which is a holy relic. In 614, Persian invaders demolished the church, and took with them the relic of the cross. They kept it until 631, when the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius negotiated for its return to Jerusalem. Three hundred years after the Arab conquest of Jerusalem in 638, the entrance to the basilica was turned into a mosque, and the dome was burned down during anti-Christian riots in 966. The fanatical Fatimid Caliph ordered the destruction of the church in 1009, but the Byzantine Emperor, now Constantine IX Monomachos, once again had it rebuilt. The city of Jerusalem was captured by Seljuk Turks in 1077, and there were rumors of Christians being mistreated and denied access to the church. Liberation of holy places, chief among them the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, was a strong motivation behind the first crusade, which took place in 1096. On July 15, 1149, the church was reconsecrated — exactly 50 years after Jerusalem was captured by the first crusade.
On Feb. 25, 2018, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre closed its doors to the public in response to proposed law changes. Church officials claim the first of these laws will prevent them from selling their land, which they do in order to raise money. In the 1950s, the Greek Orthodox Church made a deal leasing land to the Jewish National Fund, which allowed residents of Jerusalem to build houses on it. The understanding was that the lease would automatically renew when its term was up. However in recent years, the church has been selling some of that land to private investors that are requiring residents to make payments ranging from $50,000 to $140,000, or risk losing their homes. Israeli lawmaker and Former Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem Rachel Azaria says “This bill has nothing to do with the church… It’s all to do with the thousands and thousands of families that are going to lose their homes.”
The second proposed law would require churches to begin paying taxes on buildings that are used for purposes other than worship, such as schools and meeting halls. The church buildings themselves would remain tax-exempt. Church figures said that “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.” Meanwhile, the mayor behind the law, Nir Barkat says he is aiming to correct an unfair imbalance in the favor of the church.
In the midst of this controversy, many pilgrims who have traveled thousands of miles to see the Church of the Holy Sepulchre were left out in the cold, wondering why they couldn’t access this place of worship. On Feb. 27, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a public statement saying that a team would be sent to work out a solution with church leaders regarding the taxation of church properties other than houses of worship. In the meantime, the tax proposal has been suspended, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre has reopened its doors to the waiting public.