4 Nov 2012

Holy row over Jerusalem church water bill

5:47 am on 4 November 2012

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem has warned that it may shut its doors to pilgrims in protest at a dispute with an Israeli water company.

The church, on the site where many Christians believe Jesus was crucified, has had its bank account frozen at the request of the company, Hagihon, over an unpaid $US2.3 million bill.

The dispute has left hundreds of priests, monks and teachers unpaid, the BBC reports.

The church has traditionally not been charged for water, but Hagihon says it is owed money for the past 15 years.

According to Israeli newspaper Maariv, there had for decades been a tacit agreement between the church and a former mayor of Jerusalem, exempting the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate from paying for water piped to the church.

But in 2004, Hagihon sent a demand to the church for $US950,000, backdated to when the company took over the water supply in the late 1990s.

The Patriarchate reportedly believed it was a mistake because Hagihon did not press it to pay. The company is now demanding that the bill, which has risen to $US2.3 million including interest, be settled.

A Hagihon spokesman said the law did not permit the company to make exemptions, adding the company had not taken other enforcement steps, such as shutting off the water supply.

The general secretary of the Patriarchate, Archbishop of Constantina Aristarchos, told Reuters the church was willing to pay water bills from now on, but that the accumulated debt, stemming back years, would be problematic.

The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, the Armenian Orthodox Patriarchate and the Roman Catholic Franciscan Custos are jointly responsible for the church's administration.