Church entitled with rights to its property in Israel – Armenian Patriarchate weighs in on Jerusalem tax motion
YEREVAN, MARCH 7, ARMENPRESS. A commission has been created to deal with the solution of the problems which were caused after the Jerusalem Municipality’s decision on charging real estate taxes from church-owned properties and the new bill on the properties. Representatives of Christian spiritual institutions will also work with the commission, Archimandrite Koryun Baghdasaryan, chancellor of the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem told ARMENPRESS.
Please tell us at what phase are the latest developments, what resolution did the problem get?
In the end of February the three spiritual leaders who hold custody decided to open the doors of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, because the day before the office of the Israeli Prime Minister released a statement. It concerned the municipality’s decision on charging taxes from churches and monasteries, and the bill which has been introduced in the Knesset, according to which if any church-owned property would be given for lease the government would be entitled to expropriate this property by paying compensation to the church. According to the statement from the Prime Minister’s office, these two – the decision and the bill – have been suspended. The Prime Minister set up a commission including municipality, finance ministry, internal and foreign affairs ministry officials. In addition, representatives from all Christian spiritual institutions should participate in negotiations to reach a common decision.
Obviously this issue didn’t surface all of a sudden. Overall how long has the issue related to the church-owned lands existed in Jerusalem?
We can say that the bill regarding the properties in Jerusalem has been undergoing the preparation phase for already a year. The reason is the following: Since 2010 the Greek Patriarchate had signed contracts with a company recognized by the state. This company , which had rented a church-owned property for 99 years, had refused from this right at some phase and was ready to sell its right of rent to a third party. Factually, the Greek Patriarch had agreed since 2010 that this third party can be any individual company. And since then the right of rent of many properties were transferred to the ownership of individual organizations. This is the reason that this bill was introduced.
This was the reason, but what is the general policy towards church-owned properties?
The rights of church-owned properties belong to the church, this is clearly recorded. These properties serve as income source for the implementation of the church’s mission, the church’s maintenance. There were cases when the state’s church-owned properties were declared “green zones” or a public park. When a “green zone” is declared for a church-owned property, the church cannot do anything there. The state can’t do anything also without the agreement of the given church. Such cases exist, definitely this causes great harm to the church, because today it is impossible to realize any program or project concerning these properties. And as we know, the more projects the more revenues will be ensured for church institutions. And in case of income, the mission can be carried out more effectively.
The Municipality explained its decision by saying that the budget has a gap and they can’t collect sufficient resources. How would you comment this argument?
Churches and monasteries have been exempt from paying taxes for many centuries. We will never agree for taxes to be introduced against churches and monasteries. This can’t be considered as means for the municipality to fill the gap in the budget. They must find another way. The Mayor had addressed the finance minister, and only when he got a rejection he took this step. In any case, when they say debt, we don’t consider it a debt because for many centuries we have been exempt from taxes, such kind of a debt is unacceptable for us. All those church-owned properties which are on lease pay taxes. We oppose defining taxes for churches and monasteries, while outside of this the Christian institutions pay taxes for all profit-generating properties.
How does the US President’s statement on acknowledging Jerusalem to be Israel’s capital and the developments related to the bill and the municipality decision impact tourism flow?
Certainly a decrease of tourism numbers is noticed since the US President’s statement as well as closing the doors of the church. Because violence took place after the US President’s statement, the conflict seemingly awakened, many cancelled their visits. The same after closing the door of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, when a pilgrim is coming to the Holy Land the first destination is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. And if the pilgrim thinks that when he arrives to Jerusalem he won’t see the main holy site, he will think about cancelling the trip.
If I am not mistaken, representatives of the Armenian community are mostly involved in the service sector – trade, rendering services. I believe that the drop in visits is also making economic impact on locals, including the Armenian community.
Yes, you are correct, Armenians are mostly [involved] in the service sector. The decrease of the number of visitors of the city certainly impacts the residents, including Armenians. But the locals are seemingly used to the fact that a long-term calm situation doesn’t happen here. Some kind of incidents or actions happen all the time, which negatively impacts the service sector, and the situation is restored after some time. 3000 Armenians live in the Armenian district of Jerusalem alone. Overall 8000 Armenians live in the Holy Land, I mean both Israel and sections of Palestine. All our projects and initiatives are implemented through a united committee where all unions are represented. There is an active collaboration.
Interview by Anna Gziryan
English –translator/editor: Stepan Kocharyan