Back in November 2017 the BBC Radio 4 religious affairs programme ‘Sunday‘ presented a highly partisan and inaccurate account of a story involving Israel and the Greek Orthodox Church which listeners were erroneously led to believe is about ‘religious freedom’.
On February 25th 2018 the BBC News website published an article relating to the same story under the headline “Jerusalem: Christianity’s ‘holiest site’ closed in protest” which opened with amplification of a baseless claim that is part of a PR campaign launched by church leaders last November.
“Christian leaders in Jerusalem have taken the rare step of shutting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in protest against a new Israeli tax policy and a proposed property law.
Church leaders have described the legislation as an attack on Christians in the Holy Land.” [emphasis added]
Additional PR messaging – complete with a poorly veiled Nazi analogy – was amplified later on in the report.
“In a joint statement, Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Church leaders said the church would be closed until further notice.
The protest was launched because Church officials object to a bill the Israeli government is considering, which they fear would let the state claim church-owned land.
Branding the bill “abhorrent”, the leaders said it “reminds us all of laws of a similar nature which were enacted against the Jews during a dark period in Europe”.”
As was explained here last November, the proposed bill is intended to safeguard the rights of residents living in properties constructed on land that was formerly owned by the church but which the church has sold to a third party.
“The main initiative to advance legislation to protect residents is being driven by lawmaker Rachel Azaria (Kulanu). Just before the start of the Knesset’s summer recess, she signed 40 MKs onto a private members’ bill to allow the state to confiscate land that has been sold. The confiscation would take effect from January 1, 2018, and the private investors would be compensated.”
Ms Azaria’s bill would mean that:
“…deals to sell the land would have to be approved by the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice committee, that buyers would have to be Israeli citizens or Israeli-owned companies, that lease extensions would be dealt with by a national body, the cost of extensions would not be passed onto residents, and in cases where a national institution was not involved in a church land transaction, the state would use the tools at its disposal to protect the residents against losing their homes.”
In other words, although the claim that the bill “would let the state claim church-owned land” is false, the BBC chose to amplify it anyway. Moreover, later on in the report we see that the BBC understands full well that the allegation is baseless.
“Supporters of the bill say it is meant to protect Israelis living on former Church land sold to private developers from the risk these companies will not extend their leases. […]
The legislator promoting the bill, Rachel Azaria, told the BBC: “I understand that the Church is under pressure, but their lands will remain theirs, no-one has any interest to touch them ever.
“My bill deals with what happens when the right over the lands are sold to a third party.””
The BBC’s report goes on to mention another component of the dispute: a disagreement over what would in the UK be classified as the requirement to pay council tax on church-owned property that is not registered as a place of public religious worship.
“They [Church leaders] are also angry about attempts to tax Church property which authorities in Jerusalem view as commercial.
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat has said the city is owed 650m shekels ($186m; £133m) in uncollected taxes on Church assets.
He said all churches were exempt from the tax changes, and that only Church-owned “hotels, halls and businesses” would be affected.”
The Times of Israel explains:
“…local churches are also protesting being charged millions of shekels in back taxes they say are illegitimate.
That dispute revolves around whether tax exemptions for the churches extend to properties, such as schools and residences, that are not used directly for worship. […]
On Sunday, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat defended efforts to force the churches to pay millions in back taxes to the city. He said that it wasn’t fair that businesses on church property have traditionally been exempt from paying taxes.
“Why should the Mamila Hotel pay taxes and the Notre Dame Hotel, which is just opposite it, be exempt?” he posted on Twitter.”
Obviously the BBC News website’s amplification of church leaders’ PR hyperbole such as claims of an “attack on Christians in the Holy Land” in this ‘he said-she said’ account of the dispute does not contribute to audience understanding of the real – and rather more mundane – background to this story.