Holiest Christian site could close over unpaid water bill
Christianity's holiest place is at the centre of a bitter dispute over an unpaid water bill.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem is regarded as the site where Jesus was crucified and buried.
Its administrators say its doors will close unless the matter involving a water bill of 2.3 million dollars, which it says it is under no obligation to pay, is settled at the top political level.
Water provider Hagihon is demanding payment on an invoice it first issued eight years ago, when Jerusalem authorities privatized the service. Until then, the basilica in the walled Old City had never been billed for water.
About two weeks ago, the bank account of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, one of the Christian dominions which runs the site, was frozen on the request of Hagihon.
"The church is completely paralysed," an official from the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate told the daily Maariv on condition of anonymity.
"We can't pay for toilet paper. Nothing. Hagihon has declared war on us."
The patriarchate, which administers the basilica along with the Armenian Patriarchate and the Roman Catholic Franciscan Custos, is also unable to access funds to pay its clergy or cover the running costs of its schools.
City and Interior Ministry officials stepped in to try to negotiate a compromise but the talks failed, with church leaders saying they no longer want Hagihon as a supplier and would ask worshippers to bring bottled water.
Dimitri Dilani, the head of the Christian National Coalition in the Holy Land, told dpa Sunday that unless Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself intervenes, the basilica will have to close its doors indefinitely.
"We all pray that it doesn't come down to this but if the Israeli authorities leave no choice than that will happen."
Church leaders have sent letters to Greek Orthodox Patriarchates worldwide, the Vatican, Netanyahu and Israeli President Shimon Peres, asking them to intervene, he said.
"The ball is in the Israeli court right now," Dilani told dpa.
He said "the matter is not about a water bill," but about "shaking the status quo that governs the relationship between the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the governing authorities."
Dilani warned that changing one detail in this status quo that dates back to Ottoman rule could give rise to a "very dangerous situation". Israel, he charged, was trying to "gain control" of the church because of its economic and historical importance.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor dismissed the charge, saying: "The question is one of an unpaid water bill."
He told dpa it seemed "a bit funny" to talk about a status quo since the Ottoman Empire, "because as far as I know there were no water bills or running water then."
Palmor said the government's Water Authority had instructed Hagihon to immediately withdraw the order blocking the basilica's bank account.
"Water will continue to run," he said.
Roman emperor Constantine, a convert to Christianity, first ordered the construction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre at what is believed to be Golgotha in 326 AD.
About 15 years ago, the Jerusalem municipality privatized the city's water service and Hagihon became the supplier.
In 2004, the company sent basilica administrators an invoice for 3.7 million shekels (nearly 1 million dollars at the current exchange rate).
The patriarchate said it ignored the bill, which it was certain was sent by mistake.
Hagihon is now seeking 9 million shekels (2.3 million dollars), which it says includes interest and arrears.
"We hope that it will be solved soon so as not to disappoint the thousands of tourists and visitors daily at the popular and important site," the Tourism Ministry said in a statement.