Israel’s president and prime minister have won praise from Christian leaders after helping secure church property rights.
Church leaders inside and outside Israel welcomed their intervention to prevent a vote in the Knesset on a bill that would have affected Churches’ property rights.
A vote was due on 23 December on the Tenants’ Rights Law that could have resulted in nationalisation of properties used for housing sold by the Churches to private developers. While the Government said the aim of the bill was to protect tenants and investors, there were fears on the part of the Churches that it could result in the confiscation of their property.
The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, Custody of the Holy Land, and Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem lobbied domestically and internationally against what they called an “intentional act of grave insensitivity”.
The intervention of President Reuven Rivlin, who met Pope Francis during a private audience at the Vatican last month, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won praise from Theophilos III, Patriarch of Jerusalem, for their commitment to preserving “the unique multi-religious tapestry of our beloved Jerusalem”. At a New Year reception on 27 December, speaking on behalf of Church leaders,the Patriarch thanked “friends both in Israel and around the world, who, in spite of the inconvenient timing, came immediately to our assistance”.
Mr Netanyahu was clearly aware of the “inconvenient” Christmas timing and ready to make overtures to Christians inside and outside Israel. In a 24 December message on social media he said: “It's a pleasure for me, on Christmas Eve, to be here, standing in Jerusalem, the holy city. I'm very proud to be the Prime Minister of Israel. A country that says Merry Christmas, first to its Christian citizens, and to our Christian friends around the world!”
Theophilos III warned that the Churches would remain vigilant with regard to the intentions of the proposed bill. “While thankful for this reprieve, we are deeply concerned that attempts to bring this legislation forward will continue,” said Theophilos III. “We shall therefore remain actively attentive to this matter, and convinced that this bill has no place in the corpus of legislation of the State of Israel. We reiterate our readiness for dialogue to find lasting solutions that benefit our whole society. Yet at the same time we stand united in our position both to defend our legitimate and sacred rights, as well as to continue that constructive engagement with governmental authorities that has been formed and shaped over the many years.”
In the US in November a bipartisan group of lawmakers had written to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warning that the bill “threatens the stability of the historic Christian presence in Jerusalem”. In the UK, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, last week spoke to ITV about the legislation. “The proposed law would have a very serious effect on the Christian Churches in Jerusalem, the very place we are looking to at this time of year,” he said. “There are issues in the bill that need to be looked at but this is not the right moment. I admire Prime Minister Netanyahu reflecting Israel’s reputation for freedom of religion and belief and the rule of law. I hope he will continue to do so.”