Israel Seizing Church Funds?

Israel’s Chief Tax Collector has seized the funds of Catholic Church institutions in Israel in order to force them to submit to fiscal demands which he considers appropriate.

According to AsiaNews, Yehezkel Abrahamoff of Israel’s Finance Ministry has ordered the seizure to force the Church to pay taxes without waiting for the outcome of ongoing negotiations on the 1993 Fundamental Agreement between the Holy See and Israel. Central to those talks are fiscal statutes relating to the Church in Israel.

AsiaNews says it has received both documentation and testimony of Abrahamoff’s initiative. The institutions concerned have asked not to be named for fear of reprisals on the part of the Tax Authority.

The move comes only a few weeks after Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Israel ,which was expected to help bring to a conclusion negotiations over the Agreement. Franciscan Father David Maria Jaeger, delegate of the Custody of the Holy Land, described Abrahamoff’s decision to AsiaNews as “an extraordinary step” that hopefully “will be disowned” by the Israeli government in the context of ongoing negotiations over the Fundamental Agreement.

“Not having received any instructions as to this — and given the extreme delicacy of the subject matter — I am at this time unable to reply to reporters’ questions as to whether the Custody of the Holy Land has been targeted by the attachment of Church funds reportedly decreed by an official of the Finance Ministry, a Mr. Yehezkel Abrahamoff,” Father Jaeger said.

But Father Jaeger added that “in a personal capacity” he hoped that this extraordinary initiative, if confirmed, “be found to be that of an uninformed individual functionary, and that in the next few hours it will disowned and overturned by his superiors, in keeping with the well-known treaty obligation of the State (in the framework of its Fundamental Agreement with the Holy See) to abstain rigorously from any such unilateral moves while negotiations are pending on the plane of public international law.”

Father Jaeger stressed the importance of the Holy See giving a “firm response” to the move.

So far it is not clear if this is a personal decision by a single functionary, or whether it reflects a radical change of direction by the Netanyahu Government. Negotiations over the Fundamental Agreement had been making progress recently, and many involved in the process have been confident that the negotiations would be concluded by the end of the year.

Under a de facto agreement based on a U.N. statute, the Church should be exempt from paying taxes on its property, and in fact has not done so since the state of Israel was founded. But Israel has so far refused to offer a formal exemption, leaving the Church open to any summons to pay these taxes and therefore vulnerable to the whims of government officials.

Israeli officials are reluctant to give up these arbitrary powers, and to formalize a tax exemption which other religions in the country might also demand.

The hope is this issue will be resolved speedily to avoid Church institutions in Israel — especially schools and hospitals — possibly closing due to shortage of funds to pay for goods and services.

So far, neither Israel’s embassy to the Holy See nor the Vatican have issued a formal statement.