November 14, 2012
Posted: 949 GMT
It's a story that combines three of the region's most critical issues – it's a dispute in Jerusalem, a dispute between Arabs and Israelis... and a dispute over water. All rolled into one, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, one of the most venerated sites in Christianity, has had its bank accounts frozen over $2.3 million of unpaid water bills, with monks threatening to close the church in protest.
The church receives about a million pilgrims a year and stands at the site where Jesus Christ is believed to have been crucified and buried.
The water bill is backdated fifteen years to the time when a new company took over the supply. For decades the church was exempt from paying water bills until the Israeli water company began pressing it to pay up a few years ago.
Issa Musleh, spokesman for the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem told the UK newspaper The Guardian: "They have frozen our account. This is a flagrant act against the church."
"The church is completely paralysed. We can't pay for toilet paper. Nothing. [The water company] Hagihon has declared war on us," a Patriarchate official told the Hebrew-language daily Maariv.
In a statement to Maariv, Hagihon said it had been in talks for several years with church representatives with the aim of reaching a settlement of the debt. It was prohibited by the Israeli Water Authority from exempting any party from water charges, and more than 1,000 religious institutions in Jerusalem paid their bills regularly, it added.
According to the English-language daily Haaretz, Greek Orthodox priest Isidoros Fakitsas said that the move has impaired the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to pay bills and salaries including 500 priests and monks, 2,000 teachers and the running costs of over 30 Christian schools that the church runs in the Palestinian territories and Jordan.
As a result, the church is considering closing for a day in protest, shutting the doors to pilgrims for the first time in centuries. The church is seeking international backing.
As with all issues concerning the Holy City, the issue has become politicized within the wider Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“If they want to cut water off then we will ask the pilgrims and visitors to bring their own water with them and we will explain to them what is happening so that they would know about the Israeli arbitrary policies being practiced against the holy places,” Musleh told the Palestinian news agency WAFA.
The church is no stranger to controversy. The most memorable incident is probably the brawl between Armenian and Greek Orthodox monks a few years ago that police had to forcibly break up.
Stay tuned to CNN for more coverage of this story out of Jerusalem.
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