By Ori Lewis
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Church leaders in Jerusalem shut the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Sunday in protest at a new Israeli tax policy and a proposed land expropriation law which they called an unprecedented attack on Christians in the Holy Land.
Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian church leaders said the holy site, a popular stop for pilgrims and where many Christians believe Jesus was crucified and buried, would remain closed until further notice.
After the protest move, an Israeli cabinet committee delayed by a week its scheduled consideration on Sunday of a bill that would allow the state to expropriate land in Jerusalem sold by churches to private real estate firms in recent years.
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 are major property owners in the city. They 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.
"This abhorrent bill ... if approved, would make the expropriation of the lands of churches possible," said the statement by Theophilos III, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, Francesco Patton, the Custos of the Holy Land, and Nourhan Manougian, the Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem.
Rachel Azaria, the lawmaker who sponsored the legislation, said in a statement she agreed to delay the committee's discussion by a week so that "we could work with the churches" to try to resolve the dispute.
The churches' protest was also aimed at the recent cancellation by Israel's Jerusalem municipality of a tax exemption it has granted to church-owned commercial properties in the city.
"This reminds us all of laws of a similar nature which were enacted against the Jews during dark periods in Europe," the church leaders said.
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat said on Twitter it was illogical to expect that church-owned commercial property, including hotels and retail businesses, would continue to enjoy tax-exempt status.
"Let me make it clear: we are not talking about houses of worship, who will still be exempt from property tax, according to law," he wrote.
Outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, pilgrims voiced their disappointment at finding its doors shut.
"I am very upset. It's my first time here and I made a big effort to get here and now I find it closed," said Marine Domenech from Lille, France.
(Reporting by Jeffrey Heller and Ori Lewis; Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky, William Maclean)