Yerushalayim Suspends Tax Collection From Churches Amid Protests

YERUSHALAYIM (AP) -

Yerushalayim Mayor Nir Barkat on Tuesday suspended a plan to impose taxes on properties owned by Christian churches, after protests by religious groups and the European Union.

In a statement, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s office said a professional team was being established to negotiate with church officials to “formulate a solution.”

“As a result, the Jerusalem Municipality is suspending the collection actions it has taken in recent weeks,” it said. The churches are said to owe the city more than 650 million shekels ($186.3 million) on their commercial operations.

There was no immediate reaction from church leaders, and it was unclear whether a church in the Old City of Yerushalayim which had closed its doors in protest would reopen.

Barkat had explained that his decision affected only commercial properties, such as hotels, restaurants and offices, and not houses of worship. He said other cities followed similar practices worldwide, but church officials were not placated.

“As the mayor of the city of Jerusalem, my goal and role is to make sure people pay their taxes,” he said in an interview earlier Tuesday. “We have no negative or bad intentions here.”

The churches accused Barkat of undermining a longstanding status quo. They say their non-church properties still serve religious purposes by providing services to their community.

In Tuesday’s announcement, Netanyahu said Cabinet Minister Tzachi Hanegbi would head the new negotiating committee, which will include representatives from the city, and the finance, foreign and interior ministries.

“The team will negotiate with the representatives of the churches to resolve the issue,” it said.

In addition to suspending tax collection, Netanyahu’s office said that proposed legislation governing the sale of church lands in Jerusalem was also being suspended.

“Israel is proud to be the only country in the Middle East where Christians and believers of all faiths have full freedom of religion and worship,” the statement added.