Church of the Holy Sepulchre closed in Jerusalem

Posted at 10:47 PM, Feb 26, 2018
and last updated 2018-02-26 22:47:46-05

(CNN) - For many Christians, coming to Jerusalem to retrace the steps of Jesus is the trip of a lifetime.

Right now, some pilgrims in the city are extremely disappointed that their holiest site of all is closed. A local dispute has led the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to shut its doors.

The church is one of the holiest sites in Christianity. It is where many Christians believe Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected. Millions of pilgrims flock to it each year. But its doors have remain closed as Jerusalem’s church leaders protest two new proposed laws.

One, they say, would make it harder for them to sell their land, which they need to do to raise funds.

The other would make them pay taxes on buildings that serve as more than just places of worship, like schools or hotels.

It prompted a rare show of unity and anger.

“This reminds us all of laws of a similar nature which were enacted against the Jews during dark periods in Europe,” said Theophilos III, the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church of Jerusalem. “This systematic and unprecedented attack against Christians in the holy land severely violates the most basic and particular and sovereign rights."

Rachel Azaria, an Israeli lawmaker, sponsored the new property regulation. She said it's not about targeting Christians; it's about providing security to people living in homes previously sold off by the church to private investors.

"The bill has nothing to do with the church. It's all about land that was sold by the churches. We're very happy when the church owns the land. That was fine with us. We get along with them very, very well,” she said. “It's only about taking care of these thousands of families that we do not want them to lose their homes."

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, who is driving the new taxation law, said that measure is about correcting an imbalance that has unfairly favored the church to the tune of nearly $200 million.

He tweeted: “We will no longer require Jerusalem's residents to bear or subsidize this huge debt.”

In normal times, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is one of Jerusalem's most visited spots. Now that it is closed for the time being, pilgrims are worshiping outside.

“In general I support Israel, but not in this case,” said Tom O’Flynn, an American tourist. “My politics are changing.”

Another American tourist, Lorene Herbert, said: “I think they are just being stubborn about it. I mean, the church is a church and you should be able to go into it no matter what.”

Politicians and church leaders are talking about ways to bridge the impasse.

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