BBC R4 ‘Sunday’ adds more confusion to Jerusalem church story

Listeners to the March 4th edition of the BBC Radio 4 religious affairs programme ‘Sunday‘ heard a report (from 01:07 here) billed “The Church of the Holy Sepulchre reopens”. However, not until the very end of that four-minute item did they discover who closed the church in the first place.

Presenter Edward Stourton introduced the item as follows: [emphasis in italics in the original, emphasis in bold added]

Stourton: “The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem was shut for three days earlier this week because of a row between Christian churches and the Israeli authorities. Jordana Miller is based in Jerusalem and reports for ABC News in the United States. […] And this of course is the church which is said to include the sites of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial so shutting it down is a pretty big deal, isn’t it?”

Miller: “Absolutely. This is one of the most visited churches. I mean 2 million Christians visit Israel each year. The vast majority of them are thought to pass through this church. It is where the tomb of Jesus was just renovated this past year. So always on people’s list as one of the kind of spiritual peaks of their visit to the holy land and closing it was heartbreaking. I was reporting outside the church and people came, some were crying saying that they had, you know, waited years and years to visit Israel and to come into this church and they had to pray actually at its wooden doors instead of going inside.”

Stourton: “And as I understand it one of the sources of dispute between the churches and the authorities is the taxes that the church pays on its properties.”

That dispute is of course about taxes that the church has not paid on its properties for years. Listeners were then led to believe that “Israel” – rather than the Jerusalem municipality, as is actually the case – has demanded payment of those taxes.

Miller: “That’s right. The dispute – there are two – one revolves around Israel’s decision to begin to tax the commercial properties of the church. And now this is done in cities like Tel Aviv and Haifa but for a long time there was an exemption on commercial properties that the church operated in Jerusalem – hotels, restaurants – that may be attached to religious institutions and the city decided to start to tax those institutions. Part of the problem is that there doesn’t seem that there was a lot of communication with the church heads and suddenly priests started getting notices, bills and get visits from, you know, tax authorities from the city. So they decided this was unacceptable.”

Obviously that account does not adequately clarify that – as in the UK – the property tax does not apply to “religious institutions” that are places of worship.

Edward Stourton then gave unqualified amplification to messaging put out by church leaders while inaccurately claiming that the proposed bill is “being debated” when in fact the debate had already been postponed nearly a week before this item was aired.

Stourton: “And at the same time there is this legislation being debated which has an impact on the sales of church land. Can you unpack that for us?”

Miller: “Right. This is such a complicated issue but essentially the Greek Orthodox Church has sold lands – they’re actually leases on lands and they were previously held by the Israeli government for let’s say 75, 85, 99 years.”

In fact the Greek Orthodox Church has sold lands – rather than leases – and the related leases were held by the Jewish National Fund rather than “the Israeli government”.

Miller: “And those leases are about to run out in about 30 years and they sold these leases to a private company. We don’t even know that much about the buyers but the problem is that the lands – there are, you know, thousands of Israeli residents that sit…that own…they think they own their homes because even though they technically didn’t buy the land, they assumed it was going to be held in perpetuity by the church.”

The people concerned do own their properties but pay leasehold fees on the land on which they are built.

Miller: “Now suddenly it’s going to transfer into the hands of private companies and they fear they’re going to get evicted, they’re going to have to re-buy the land. So the Israeli government really is trying to step in and buy these leases from the private companies and the church is saying listen, this infringes on who we can sell our property to and so that was another reason they decided to close the church.”

As has been clarified here previously, the proposed 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.”

Stourton continued:

Stourton: “Well clearly a bit of a tangle there and it’s going to take some sorting out. The church is now open again – does that reflect a better relationship or at least an attempt to sort things out?”

Miller: “Well absolutely. I mean the prime minister actually had to step in because he potentially had on his hands a crisis with the Christian world. I mean this is really the most important Christian holy site – one of them – in the world. To keep it closed would have, you know…he would have had a real crisis on his hands. So essentially he carved out a deal where he set up two adminis…two committees basically that will work on sorting both the tax and the land issues. They’re government ministries that will be set up now so under that arrangement the church agreed to reopen its doors.”

In fact no “government ministries” will “be set up”: a government committee has been established to resolve the issue.

This is the second time that Radio 4’s religious affairs programme ‘Sunday’ has covered this subject in just over three months but neither of the two reports have given listeners a clear, accurate and impartial account of the story.

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BBC News amplifies church leaders’ Nazi analogy yet again

 

 

BBC News amplifies church leaders’ Nazi analogy yet again

The re-opening of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem after a three-day closure was the topic of a report that appeared on the BBC News website on February 28th under the headline “Jerusalem: Christianity’s ‘holiest site’ Holy Sepulchre reopens after protest“.

“The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem has reopened, three days after Christian leaders closed it in protest at plans to tax Church properties in the city. […]

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Tuesday there would be negotiations to try to resolve the dispute, prompting the mayor [of Jerusalem] to suspend changes.”

The report goes on to mislead readers by stating that:

“Church officials also objected to a bill the Israeli government was considering, which they feared would let the state claim Church-owned land.” [emphasis added]

The bill concerned does nothing of the sort. As the Times of Israel explains, it relates to land already sold by the Church and hence no longer “Church-owned” – as inaccurately claimed by the BBC.

“After the church was shuttered, lawmakers on Sunday postponed for a week a Knesset committee debate on a bill that would allow Israel to confiscate land sold by the churches to private developers in cases where homes had been built on the lands.

The advancement of the legislation, initiated by Kulanu MK Rachel Azaria and backed by the Justice Ministry, is fiercely opposed by church leaders, who have decried what they see as attempts by Israel to limit their ability to buy and sell their only real assets — real estate.

Azaria says her bill seeks to protect hundreds of Israelis, largely in Jerusalem, whose homes are located on land that, until recently, was owned and leased to them by the churches, principally the Greek Orthodox Church — in most cases under 99-year contracts signed in the 1950s between the church and the state, via the Jewish National Fund.

The contracts state that when the leases run out, any buildings on them will revert back to the church. Residents expected that the leases would be extended. But in recent years, in order to erase massive debts, the Greek Orthodox Church has sold vast swaths of real estate to private investors, and nobody knows whether they will renew the leases, and if so, under what conditions.”

As readers may be aware, an issue similar to the one MK Azaria’s bill is intended to tackle currently affects many UK home-owners.

However, as was the case in a previous BBC report on this story, we see later on in the article that the BBC is aware that the statement alleging that the Israeli state would be able to “claim Church-owned land” is inaccurate – once again raising the question of why the corporation elected to knowingly amplify that inaccuracy.

“Supporters of the bill say it is meant to protect Israelis living on former Church land sold to private developers from the risk that these companies will not extend their leases.

Christian leaders say the proposed law would make it harder to sell Church land, a key source of funds.”

Equally remarkable is the fact that the anonymous writer of this BBC report elected to re-amplify a Nazi analogy previously promoted by church leaders even though it did not appear in the statement they put out after Israel announced that a committee would be set up to resolve the issues.

“Branding the bill “abhorrent”, Christian leaders released a joint statement saying it reminded them “of laws of a similar nature which were enacted against the Jews during a dark period in Europe”.”

The IHRA working definition of antisemitism – adopted by the British government in 2016 – states that one manifestation of antisemitism is “Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis”.

The fact that those “Christian leaders” chose to make such an unfounded and abhorrent analogy is of course deeply worrying. The fact that the BBC chose to uncritically amplify that statement twice in the space of three days is of no less concern.

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BBC again amplifies church leaders’ PR hyperbole

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.

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