The Israeli bank account of the Greek Orthodox Church of Jerusalem has been seized because of unpaid water bills, Israeli newspaper Maariv reported.
The church has traditionally not been charged for water, but Hagihon (an independent corporation established by the municipality of Jerusalem) says it is owed money for the past 15 years.
It imposed the seizure two weeks ago over a $2.5 million debt accumulated at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is under the church’s management. The municipality of Jerusalem has traditionally waived payment on water by the church out of recognition of its immense significance to countless Christians all over the world and the tourist traffic it brings.
The first demand for payment came in 2004 and was ignored by the church authorities. Negotiations reached a deadlock, and Hagihon filed for repossession of the church’s assets. The Patriarchate reportedly believed it was a mistake because Hagihon did not press it to pay.
The Greek Orthodox Church of Jerusalem, which is headquartered at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, has been unable to pay salaries to its clergymen and utilities because of the freeze. A Hagihon spokesman said Israeli law did not permit any exemptions.
The company had not taken other enforcement steps, such as shutting off the water supply, in order not to disrupt activities at the site, he added. Father Isidoros Fakitsas, Superior of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, told the Associated Press that an agreement had been reached with Hagihon a few weeks ago.
Under the deal, various denominations of the church would pay their monthly bill and the $2.5 million debt was to be forgotten, he said. But to his surprise the Patriarchate’s bank account was blocked, making it impossible to pay salaries to some 500 priests and monks, 2,000 teachers and the running costs of more than 30 schools.
Patriarch Theophilos III wrote a letter to Israel’s prime minister and president warning that the “enforcement of this unjustified step undermines the sanctity and offends the sensitivity of the site”.
He told Maariv: “If nothing changes we intend to announce… for the first time in centuries that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is closed.” Theophilos III is also planning to write to President Obama and other world leaders to protest the seizure. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is said to contain the place where Jesus was buried. Source: Maariv and BBC