Israel suspends plan to tax Jerusalem church properties

In this Sunday, Feb. 25, 2018 file photo, visitors pray outside the closed doors of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, traditionally believed by many Christians to be the site of the crucifixion and burial of Jesus Christ, in Jerusalem. Leaders of the two largest Christian sects in Jerusalem on Monday said the Church of the Holy Sepulchre will remain closed indefinitely to protest an Israeli attempt to tax their properties in the holy city, shuttering one of Jerusalem's most venerable and popular holy sites. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean, File)

JERUSALEM (AP) — Jerusalem's mayor on Tuesday suspended a plan to impose taxes on properties owned by Christian churches, backing away from a move that had enraged religious leaders and led to the closure of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

In a statement, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office said a professional team was being established to negotiate with church officials to "formulate a solution."

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"As a result, the Jerusalem Municipality is suspending the collection actions it has taken in recent weeks," it said.

Roman Catholic officials issued a statement saying that Christian leaders were holding consultations and would soon announce their response, including a decision on whether to reopen the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and leaders of other Christian denominations closed the famed church on Sunday to protest an order by Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat to begin taxing their properties.

The church is revered as the site where Jesus was crucified and resurrected, and the decision closed one of Jerusalem's most visited holy sites just ahead of the busy Easter season.

Barkat said 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.

"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 acting in bad faith and undermining a longstanding status quo. They say their non-church properties still serve religious purposes by providing services to pilgrims and local flocks.

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.

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