The Bishop of Southwark has called on Christians around the world to show 'solidarity' over the indefinite closure of Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulchre in protest at a bill affecting church lands and new taxes on churches that are 'unfair, inappropriate and arbitrary'.
Speaking to Christian Today from Galilee on the final day of a pilgrimage with 84 people from the south London Anglican diocese, Bishop Christopher Chessun also expressed his disapproval of a bill in the Knesset, or Israeli parliament, supported by Israeli settlers, that would allow the state to expropriate land in Jerusalem sold by churches to private real estate firms in recent years.
'The bill going through the Knesset is of course at the instigation of particular groups and it is very important that the powers that be recognise the significance of the status quo which governs the relationship formally between the church and the state,' Chessun said.
'So if there are actions taken by different groups of settlers or whatever else and that leads to poor leadership by the powers that be then there will be massive consequences.'
Chessun explained: 'We were in the Holy Sepulchre first thing on Thursday morning in Jerusalem so it's very shocking to think of it as shut indefinitely. But it is a sign of the seriousness of the dispute and the clear sense of the church leaders that they need to act in a unified way that makes a clear statement to the Christian world that they consider this to be a moment to be under threat.'
He added: 'Of course, had we been a week later we would not have been able to go to the Holy Sepulchre – where there is constant prayer from dawn, and it is the most important Christian shrine in Jerusalem and more widely one of the holiest places of Christian pilgrimage.'
Reacting to the imposition by Israel's Jerusalem municipality of a tax exemption it has granted to church-owned commercial properties in the city, Bishop Chessun said: 'The taxes are...considered to be unfair, inappropriate and arbitrary by the churches and the church leaders in Jerusalem. And of course they put at risk the holy places so this is a very significant matter in the eyes of church leaders in Jerusalem.'
After the shock protest move, an Israeli cabinet committee last night delayed its scheduled consideration of the church lands bill by a week. The stated aim of the bill is to protect homeowners against the possibility that private companies will not extend their leases of land on which their houses or apartments stand. The churches, who are major property owners in the city, say such a law would make it harder for them to find buyers for church-owned land, sales that help to cover operating costs of their religious institutions.
Chessun said: 'We are a happy band of 90 pilgrims. We feel that having had the blessing of making the pilgrimage to the Holy Sepulchre – we walked along the way of the cross and culminated at the Holy Sepulchre – that this is something we feel that is a matter to pray about for a resolution.
'This is unprecedented, this action by the heads of the Churches. People need to realise that from their perspective they would only have taken this action if they felt it was time to alert Christian brothers and sisters in all nations that this dispute.'
He concluded: 'I think it's important for the Christian Churches to respond to what has been the decision of the heads of the five senior Churches with prayer and solidarity, because this is a sign that this is a very significant moment and we shouldn't in any way underrate the significance of this moment.'