The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, also town as the "tomb of Christ," has been shut down by church leaders in protest against a new tax bill by the Israeli government, which they have described as "abuse" against Christians.
"Recently, this systematic and offensive campaign has reached an unprecedented level as the Jerusalem municipality issued scandalous collection notices and orders of seizure of Church assets, properties and bank accounts for alleged debts of punitive municipal taxes. A step that is contrary to the historic position of the Churches within the Holy City of Jerusalem and their relationship with the civil authorities," Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Church leaders declared in a joint statement on Sunday.
"These actions breach existing agreements and international obligations which guarantee the rights and the privileges of the Churches, in what seems as an attempt to weaken the Christian presence in Jerusalem. The greatest victims in this are those impoverished families who will go without food and housing, as well as the children who will be unable to attend school."
The bill in question aims to tax the church bodies' various properties and dispossess lands sold by the churches since 2010 to private investors.
The church leaders argued that the "abhorrent" tax bill is both "discriminatory and racist" as it targets specifically the properties of Christian communities.
"This reminds us all of laws of a similar nature which were enacted against the Jews during dark periods in Europe," the statement continued.
"This systematic and unprecedented attack against Christians in the Holy Land severely violates the most basic, ab antiquo and sovereign rights, trampling on the delicate fabric of relations between the Christian community and the authorities for decades."
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat has argued that the city is owed $186 million in uncollected taxes on church assets, and has insisted that only church-owned "hotels, halls and businesses" will be affected.
Barkat further argued that it wasn't fair to exempt businesses on church property from paying taxes.
"I'm not prepared for Jerusalem's residents to have to shoulder these huge sums," the mayor said.
Rachel Azaria, one of the legislators behind the controversial bill, told BBC News: "I understand that the Church is under pressure, but their lands will remain theirs, no one has any interest to touch them ever."
Azaria added, "My bill deals with what happens when the right over the lands are sold to a third party."
The Times of Israel reported that following the major outcry by the church leaders, Israeli ministers decided to postpone a debate on the bill that was planned for Sunday.
It is not yet clear when the Church of the Holy Sepulchre will reopen, though many of the pilgrims who have found the doors shut spoke of their disappointment.
"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," Marine Domenech from Lille, France, told Reuters.
The holy place is considered by many Christians to be the location where Jesus Christ was rested after the crucifixion, and has recently been subject to massive restoration and research work.
Scientists said in November 2017 that mortar samples collected from between the original limestone surface of the tomb and a marble slab that covers it have been dated back to 345 A.D., matching historical accounts of the construction of the church.