Church of the Holy Sepulchre may close in protest over water bill

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, on the site where Jesus was crucified and rose again, may close for a day in protest over a disputed $NZ2.8 million water bill.

Such a move would bar thousands of pilgrims and visitors from the church that is considered to be the most holy Christian shrine on earth.

Already the Israeli company that supplies water to the property has frozen the bank account of the Greek Orthodox Church, which has the major ownership rights to the church. Ownership is shared with Catholics and Armenian Orthodox, while Coptic Orthodox, Syriac Orthodox an Ethiopian Orthodox have rights to use some parts.

The Greek Orthodox say they are now unable to pay stipends and salaries for some 500 priests and the 2000 teachers in its 30 schools. Cheques have bounced for services such as telephones, electricity and food.

For more than a century the Church of the Holy Sepulchre operated without paying for water under successive Ottoman, British mandate, Jordanian and Israeli governments. Then in 1996 the Jerusalem municipality handed its water supply to a corporation called Hagihon Inc.

In 2004 Hagihon sent the church a bill for 3.7 million shekels ($NZ1.1 million). Officials at the church, thinking it was a mistake, ignored it and Hagihon did not press for payment.

Earlier this year Hagihon sent a revised demand for 9 million shekels, covering seven years plus interest on the unpaid debt.

The two sides began negotiations, assisted by representatives of government departments and the municipality. According to the Greek Orthodox patriarchate, an agreement appeared likely when Hagihon suddenly enforced a court order to freeze the patriarchate’s bank account.

The patriarchate has written to Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, and president, Shimon Peres, for support. It also plans to approach Russian president Vladimir Putin, United States president Barack Obama, King Abdullah of Jordan and the prime ministers of Greece and Cyprus.

Hagihon says it is prohibited by the Israeli Water Authority from giving any party an exemption from water charges.


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