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Church leaders angry with Israeli land expropriation bill

Worshippers gather outside the closed Church of the Holy Sepulcher, in the Old City of Jerusalem on 27 February 2018 [Mostafa Alkharouf/Anadolu Agency]

The leaders of three main churches in Jerusalem sent a message on Monday to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asking him to scrap the draft bill that proposes to allow his government to expropriate church land in the Holy City, news agencies have reported.

The heads of the Armenian, Greek Orthodox and Catholic Churches accused the Israeli occupation of failing to commit to a deal reached earlier this year that stipulated the formation of a committee to solve the crisis surrounding this issue.

The letter was sent after Rachel Azaria MK re-submitted the bill with very few changes from its original draft. However, the Israeli government pledged to scrap it when the crisis, which led to the closure of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, deepened.

READ: ‘Church property an issue of existence,’ explain Jaffa’s Orthodox Christians

As reported by AFP, the bill does not mention churches specifically, but it would let the Israeli occupation authorities expropriate the rights over land sold by the churches and offer compensation. The church leaders called it a “scandalous bill” and said it is an “unprecedented attack” against the Christians of the Holy Land. “Certain elements in the government of Israel are still attempting to promote divisive, racist and subversive agendas,” they added, “thereby undermining the status quo and targeting the Christian community on the basis of extraneous and populist considerations.”

According to Arabs48.com, the land in question was rented to the Israeli authorities for 99 years and more than 1,000 homes for Jews have been built on it. The Orthodox Church has sold large swathes of land rented to the state to private sector Israeli-Jewish investors.

Quds Press reported Azaria as saying that the law was re-proposed in full cooperation with Netanyahu’s office and the Israeli Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, who was appointed as the head of the committee which should have solved the crisis with the churches. Church leaders stressed that “no dialogue whatsoever has taken place” with them since the end of February, when they reached a deal with the Israeli authorities.

“We view such conduct by those who promote the bill,” they told Netanyahu, “as a flagrant violation and undermining of Your Excellency’s commitment and of the basic and fundamental freedom of worship.” They urged him to “block the bill.”

READ: Israeli taboos must be broken for honest and open discussion 

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