Historic Jerusalem church in row over water bill

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Jesus may have walked on water and turned it into wine, but a hefty water bill for one of the holiest sites of Christendom is proving a headache for the church.

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher, said to be the site of Jesus' crucifixion and burial, is struggling with a 9 million Israeli shekel ($2.3 million) unpaid bill owed to the Jerusalem water company.

"Since the Ottoman era, British colonialism, Jordanian control of Jerusalem until the Israelis occupied Jerusalem in 1967, the Holy Sepulcher of Jerusalem never paid for the water bill, because of its holiness and history. This Israeli company, supported by the Jerusalem municipality, sent us a bill of 9 million (New Israeli) shekels for water bill and interest," the Deputy of the Jerusalem Greek Orthodox Patriarch, Father Issa Misleh, told Reuters Television.

Earlier this month the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, which has extensive and valuable property holdings in the Holy Land and maintains a headquarters in the ancient church, had its bank account frozen, said an official at water company, Hagihon.

Palestinian officials say that this is part of what they call Israel's attempts to ‘Judaize’ the holy city.

"Regarding Hagihon (Water authority) and the Israeli government with Jerusalem, the issue is obvious; it is to isolate the institutions and the residents. Many (Palestinian) Jerusalem organizations were closed (by Israeli Authorities)," Palestinian Minister of Jerusalem Affairs, Adnan Husseini, said.

A report in Israeli newspaper, Maariv, said the Patriarchate was threatening to shut the doors of the church, which is a major pilgrimage site for millions of tourists.

That has also angered Palestinian Christians in Jerusalem.

"It is a huge problem. All Christians do not accept this because these churches are for all the tourists and pilgrims who come to the country. It is not acceptable that people visit the church and find that there is no water," Jerusalem resident, Nicola Shbayta, said.

Maariv said that for decades there had been a tacit agreement between the church and a former mayor of Jerusalem, exempting the Patriarchate from paying for water piped to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

A spokesman for Hagihon, however, said the law did not permit the company to make such exemptions.

The church lies deep inside Jerusalem's Old City walls. It encompasses Golgotha, or Calvary, where Jesus is believed to have been crucified and the tomb where he was buried and resurrected.

A church was first built there in the 4th century under Constantine the Great, the first Christian Roman emperor, whose mother, Queen Helena, had visited the site and identified it as the place of Jesus' resurrection.