But recently the churches have put their differences aside in an effort to present a united front. In February, in a dramatic act of protest against the Israeli government’s tax plan, the various denominational leaders agreed to shutter the doors of the church, one of Jerusalem’s most popular tourist sites. By bucking their usual trend of reluctant cooperation, the churches have sent a strong message to the Israeli government: We won’t have our affairs meddled in!
Church leaders perceived the Israelis as launching a two-pronged attack on their finances. First, a new tax policy to levy municipality taxes was proposed that would have incurred payments on commercial activities such as hotels and other businesses run by churches. Second, a new law would have allowed the government to expropriate church properties sold since 2010.
Jerusalem’s Christian community galvanized in opposition to the proposed changes and some see the proposed taxes as an existential threat. According to a Franciscan Friar who did not wish to be named (as his current role at the Holy Sepulchre prevents him from talking to press), the Church views the taxes as an encroachment on Christians in Jerusalem.
"The churches cannot afford to pay the taxes"
“Israel will start with a tax on mercantile activities and then will go on to push the church out,” he said.
The government quickly backed down in response to the protest. Nir Barkat, the Mayor of Jerusalem, suspended the tax plan and a debate on the property bill has been pushed back, with Israeli officials saying a committee will look into it. After three days, the church reopened but its closure is still a topic of discussion within the hallowed walkways of the Via Dolorosa.
“The churches cannot afford to pay the taxes,” said a priest from the Coptic Church, lingering by the small archway, marked only by a faded bronze plaque, which leads from the narrow streets of the Old City into the courtyard of the church.
He said there are no substantial problems between the churches and if there are disputes, “it’s a matter of organization.” The organization of the Holy Sepulchre is a delicate choreography based on ancient customs and precedent set during the British mandate of the early twentieth century.
“Nobody is allowed to open, only me,” he said and took the heavy lock down from the door to pose for a photograph.
Nuseibeh is stout with wispy gray hair and a moustache. He wore a suit and seemed to like being photographed. On his phone are saved images of his interactions with world leaders and celebrities. He has met Superman, President Trump, and the Pope, just to name a few. His favorite President was Jimmy Carter, “he is very simple and quiet and he wants to hear and to talk,” Nuseibeh said.
But Nuseibeh is not the only Muslim to claim control of this site. Adeem Jawad Joudeh Al Husseini, 53, is the Key Custodian of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. While Nuseibeh opens the door, Al Husseini keeps the key. His family website too boasts an illustrious and ancient history and his business card features the ancient key - a long metal rod with a triangular point and circle on the end. It slots into the lock that Nuseibeh proudly guards.