Jerusalem, ZZZ, Feb 28 – The Jerusalem church built at the site many see as the holiest in Christianity reopened on Wednesday after a three-day closure in protest at Israeli measures, a move that had left thousands of visitors locked outside.
The two men who act as keepers of the key of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre unlocked its large wooden doors at around 4:00 am (0200 GMT), ending the protest that began on Sunday at noon.
Shortly afterwards, a group of pilgrims emerged from the still darkened corridors of Jerusalem’s Old City to visit the sacred site.
“We prayed in front of the doors every day since Sunday,” said Francois-Roch Ferlet, a 29-year-old visiting with a group of 50 people from France, standing near the ornate shrine encasing the traditional site of Jesus’s tomb inside the church.
They were due to leave later on Wednesday and were relieved they were able to visit.
Large crowds of tourists and pilgrims filed into the church throughout the morning.
The church is built where Christians believe Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected. Custody of it is shared by the Greek Orthodox, Armenian and Roman Catholic denominations.
The closure seemed to be the longest since at least 1990.
Christian leaders decided to reopen the church after Israel on Tuesday suspended tax measures they strongly oppose.
A proposed law that would allow Israel to expropriate land sold by the church is also to be shelved.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said a “professional team” would be appointed to come up with a solution to the tax measures imposed by authorities in Jerusalem.
An Israeli minister will also look into the issue of land sales in Jerusalem by Christian bodies, which prompted the proposed law that is now also suspended.
“We don’t like to use the term victory because nothing is over yet,” Farid Jubran, legal adviser for the Catholic custodian of sites in the Holy Land, told AFP.
“The prime minister declared he still wants to negotiate. It’s a very good step … and they realised you cannot talk to the churches with threats.”
– ‘Dark period’ –
Christian leaders are in part angry over attempts by Israeli authorities in Jerusalem to enforce tax collection on church property they consider commercial, saying exemptions only apply to places of worship or religious teaching.
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat says the city is due 650 million shekels ($186 million/152 million euros) in uncollected taxes on church properties.
He stresses all churches are exempt, with the changes only affecting establishments like “hotels, halls and businesses” owned by them.
Christian leaders say the measure jeopardises their ability to conduct their work, which includes social services to those in need.
They also argue that hostels and cafes they run for pilgrims do not operate as normal for-profit businesses would.
A separate controversial bill seeks to allay fears of Israelis who live in homes on lands previously held by the Greek Orthodox Church and which were sold to private developers, according to the lawmaker proposing it.
The bill would allow certain lands sold by the Greek Orthodox Church to be handed over to the state, which would compensate those who bought it from the church.
“This reminds us all of laws of a similar nature which were enacted against the Jews during a dark period in Europe,” Christian leaders said in a statement Sunday.
– ‘I will pray’ –
Recent land sales by the Greek Orthodox Church — a major landowner in Jerusalem — to unknown buyers have drawn fire from both Israelis and Palestinians.
Palestinians fear the sales will favour Israeli settlement construction in east Jerusalem, while Israelis are concerned over private developers’ intentions for the land.
The dispute over the taxes and proposed law is also linked to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The church is located in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem, which the Palestinians see as the capital of their future state. Israel sees the whole city as its undivided capital.
Christians in Jerusalem are mainly Palestinians and Arab Israelis.
The decision to close the church was extremely rare.
In 1990, Christian sites including the Holy Sepulchre were closed for a day to protest the installation of Jewish settlers near the church.
Christian sites were shut for two days in 1999 to protest at the planned construction of a mosque near Nazareth’s Church of the Annunciation, where tradition holds the Angel Gabriel announced to Mary she was to become the mother of Jesus.
Sameh Zakaria and his wife Amira, a Dutch-Egyptian Coptic couple, visited the church from the Netherlands on Wednesday.
“I cried when I came (yesterday) and found the church was closed,” said Amira, 44.
“I am happy now and I will pray for my children, my family and my country.”