The Greek Orthodox Church has historically been the second largest landowner in Israel.
Last month a huddle of men in long black frocks and religious headgear stood resolutely in front of Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre. In the center of the group was Theophilos III, Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, acting as representative of the three Christian religions that share the Church. He began to address the assembled crowd of journalists and onlookers.
The first thing I noticed is that he addressed the press in English rather than the local Arabic or Hebrew. I took that to mean that his remarks were intended for a world-wide audience.
What was this all about?
The Patriarch’s news conference was part of the Church’s protest against the Israeli government.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre and other Jerusalem city churches pay no property taxes on Church-owned properties that are used for religious purposes. But it turns out that most of the Church’s extensive land holdings are used for business, not religion. And the churches also do not pay property tax on these business properties. This is no small matter: The Greek Orthodox Church has historically been the second largest landowner in Israel, after the Israel Lands Authority. Thousands of Israelis live in homes on church-owned land that they occupy under long-term leases.
The dispute arose last month when the Jerusalem municipality announced it would no longer provide a tax-exemption on 887 church-owned properties that were not being used for religious purposes. They presented tax bills to the churches amounting to $186 million.
The clerics were also protesting a bill introduced by Member of the Knesset Rachel Azaria that would confiscate land that the churches had previously sold to private investors. Under church ownership, residents believed that their leases would be renewed at reasonable terms. But with the change in ownership, residents are now not certain that their leases will be renewed at reasonable rates or renewed at all. The purpose of the bill is to remedy this situation by forcing the new landowners to negotiate lease renewals under reasonable terms. Thus, the bill aims to prevent thousands of residents from losing their homes.
Instead of petitioning the government for relief of the lost tax exemption and the change in status of former church properties, the churches, led by Theophilos, shuttered the doors of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and called in the international press. The churches released the following statement:
The systematic campaign of abuse against Churches and Christians reaches now its peak as a discriminatory and racist bill that targets solely the properties of the Christian Community in the Holy Land is [sic] being promoted……This abhorrent bill is set to advance today in a meeting of a ministerial committee which if approved, would make the expropriation of the lands of Churches possible. This reminds us all of laws of a similar nature which were enacted against the Jews during dark periods in Europe.
Of course, the Israeli actions were nothing of the kind. The monks knew full-well that Israel zealously guards the rights of minority religions and that, while the Christian population in Palestinian-controlled areas has shrunk, it has prospered and grown in Israel. They also knew that the proposed Knesset legislation only applies to land no longer owned by the churches (although the legislation might lower the value of future land sales by the churches).
In a word, the monks were playing the Extortion Game.
The Monks Get Their Way
Shortly after the shuttering of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the monks’ news conference, the Jerusalem Municipality suspended collection of the past-due tax bill and announced the formation of a committee to negotiate the tax dispute with the churches. In addition, the Knesset shelved discussion of the bill to confiscate formerly church-owned properties. These actions were the result of intense pressure brought against the Israeli government by the Vatican, Evangelical Christian groups, and the Orthodox Christian countries of Russia and Greece. Just as the monks knew they could rely on the anti-Israel international press, they also knew there were other international actors they could recruit to pressure Israel.
The Holy Sepulchre monks were merely mimicking the anti-Israel tactics that Arabs have used time and again to get what they want from Israelis. They watched in 2002 when Palestinian terrorists invaded and occupied the Church of the Nativity. The terrorists had fled Israeli troops who had come to arrest them for horrific bombings during the Second Intifada. Israeli troops then surrounded the church. Given the importance of this church to the Vatican and the international community, they knew the Israelis would be pressured to give in to the terrorists’ demands. After considerable international pressure, that is just what the Israelis did. The five-week siege ended when the Israeli government allowed the terrorists safe passage out of the country. Game over.
The Extortion Game also played out on the Temple Mount in July of 2017. After three Arab terrorists shot and killed two Israeli border police officers (and injured two more) the government installed metal detectors at the entrances to the Mount. A few days of violent Arab riots were all it took to get the Israelis to cave in. They removed the metal detectors. Game over.
Everyone a Winner?
Just as in any game, in the Extortion Game, everyone plays for a reward.
In the Church of the Holy Sepulchre incident, the churches got their way and avoided payment of taxes. International actors like the Vatican and foreign governments enhanced their prestige in the eyes of their constituencies and solidified their power to act in the future. The international press got a good story.
The Israelis got rid of a headache….at least for now. But like taking aspirin for a brain tumor, the relief is temporary. Aspirin will delay the symptoms while the tumor grows.
After all, everyone is watching. The precedent is set for every group that wants something from Israel.