Jerusalem's Church of Holy Sepulchre reopens after protest

JERUSALEM, Feb 28 (Reuters) - Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulchre, revered as the site of Jesus's crucifixion and burial, reopened on Wednesday after Israel backtracked on Tuesday from a tax plan and draft property legislation that triggered a three-day protest.

The rare decision on Sunday by church leaders to close the ancient holy site, a favorite among tourists and pilgrims, with the busy Easter holiday approaching put extra pressure on Israel to re-evaluate and suspend the moves.

After receiving a statement from the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian clergy announced on Tuesday the church would reopen the next morning.

Before dawn on Wednesday, Wajeeh Nusseibeh, who is charge of locking and unlocking the church, climbed a stepladder and turned the key to open its main wooden door.

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Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City throughout history
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Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City throughout history
Worshippers hold candles as they take part in the Christian Orthodox Holy Fire ceremony at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City April 15, 2017 REUTERS/Ammar Awad TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Christian worshippers surround the Edicule as they take part in a Sunday Easter mass procession in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City April 16, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Awad
Christian worshippers take part in a Sunday Easter mass procession in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City April 16, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Awad
Christian worshippers surround the Edicule as they take part in a Sunday Easter mass procession in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City April 16, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Awad
Visitors stand in line in front of a replica of the Aedicule of Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulchre at the New Jerusalem Orthodox Monastery near the town of Istra, some 70 km outside Moscow on October 21, 2017. The New Jerusalem Orthodox Monastery was built by the Russian Orthodox Church in 1656 to represent the Christian Holy sites of Jerusalem. / AFP PHOTO / Mladen ANTONOV (Photo credit should read MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty Images)
Visitors stand in line in front of a replica of the Aedicule of Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulchre at the New Jerusalem Orthodox Monastery near the town of Istra, some 70 km outside Moscow on October 21, 2017. The New Jerusalem Orthodox Monastery was built by the Russian Orthodox Church in 1656 to represent the Christian Holy sites of Jerusalem. / AFP PHOTO / Mladen ANTONOV (Photo credit should read MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty Images)
Visitors queue in front of a replica of the Aedicule of Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulchre at the New Jerusalem Orthodox Monastery near the town of Istra, some 70 km outside Moscow, on October 21, 2017. The New Jerusalem Orthodox Monastery was built by the Russian Orthodox Church in 1656 to represent the Christian Holly sites of Jerusalem. / AFP PHOTO / Mladen ANTONOV (Photo credit should read MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty Images)
JERUSALEM - NOVEMBER 13 : Christians visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem on November 13, 2017. Jerusalem has for decades been a flashpoint for global tensions as the nexus of three of the world's oldest religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. (Photo by Orhan Akkanat/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Christian worshippers kiss the door at the entrance of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City of Jerusalem on September 28, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / THOMAS COEX (Photo credit should read THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images)
Christian Orthodox worshippers hold candles during the ceremony of the 'Holy Fire' as thousands gather in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City, on April 15, 2017, during Orthodox Easter ceremonies. The ceremony celebrated in the same way for eleven centuries, is marked by the appearance of 'sacred fire' in the two cavities on either side of the Holy Sepulchre. / AFP PHOTO / MENAHEM KAHANA (Photo credit should read MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images)
Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem, Israel, illustration from L'Illustration, Journal Universel, No 527, Volume XXI, April 2, 1853.
Roman Catholic clergy pray during the Easter Sunday procession at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalems Old City on April 16, 2017. Thousands of Christians marked Jesus's resurrection on Easter Sunday at the Jerusalem site where they believe the miracle occurred, with some prostrating themselves over his tomb and leaving in tears. / AFP PHOTO / GALI TIBBON (Photo credit should read GALI TIBBON/AFP/Getty Images)
Christian Orthodox worshippers hold candles during the ceremony of the 'Holy Fire' as thousands gather in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City, on April 15, 2017, during the Orthodox Easter holy week. The ceremony celebrated in the same way for eleven centuries, is marked by the appearance of 'sacred fire' in the two cavities on either side of the Holy Sepulchre. / AFP PHOTO / GALI TIBBON (Photo credit should read GALI TIBBON/AFP/Getty Images)
Christian Orthodox worshippers hold up candles during the ceremony of the 'Holy Fire' as thousands gather in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City, on April 15, 2017, during Orthodox Easter ceremonies. The ceremony celebrated in the same way for eleven centuries, is marked by the appearance of 'sacred fire' in the two cavities on either side of the Holy Sepulchre. / AFP PHOTO / MENAHEM KAHANA (Photo credit should read MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images)
JERUSALEM, ISRAEL - APRIL 14, 2017: The Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Sergei Fadeichev/TASS (Photo by Sergei Fadeichev\TASS via Getty Images)
JERUSALEM, ISRAEL - APRIL 14, 2017: Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia (L front), at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre; a delegation of Russia's St Andrew The First-Called Foundation has arrived in Israel on a mission to bring the Holy Fire to Moscow, as Orthodox Christians prepare to celebrate Easter. Sergei Fadeichev/TASS (Photo by Sergei Fadeichev\TASS via Getty Images)
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, also called the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre, or the Church of the Resurrection by Eastern Christians, is a church within the Christian Quarter of the walled Old City of Jerusalem. The site is venerated as Golgotha (the Hill of Calvary), where Jesus was crucified, and is said also to contain the place where Jesus was buried (the Sepulchre). The church has been a paramount for many Christians the most important pilgrimage destination, as the purported site of t (Photo by Pallava Bagla/Corbis via Getty Images)
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, also called the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre, or the Church of the Resurrection by Eastern Christians, is a church within the Christian Quarter of the walled Old City of Jerusalem. The site is venerated as Golgotha (the Hill of Calvary), where Jesus was crucified, and is said also to contain the place where Jesus was buried (the Sepulchre). The church has been a paramount for many Christians the most important pilgrimage destination, as the purported site of t (Photo by Pallava Bagla/Corbis via Getty Images)
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, also called the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre, or the Church of the Resurrection by Eastern Christians, is a church within the Christian Quarter of the walled Old City of Jerusalem. The site is venerated as Golgotha (the Hill of Calvary), where Jesus was crucified, and is said also to contain the place where Jesus was buried (the Sepulchre). The church has been a paramount for many Christians the most important pilgrimage destination, as the purported site of t (Photo by Pallava Bagla/Corbis via Getty Images)
Priests hold a Palm Sunday celebration at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. (Photo by Antoine GYORI/Sygma via Getty Images)
(Eingeschr�kte Rechte f�r bestimmte redaktionelle Kunden in Deutschland. Limited rights for specific editorial clients in Germany.) Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City of Jerusalem, photographer: Elsa Brunsch (Photo by ullstein bild via Getty Images)
Photograph of a British Military group in Jerusalem in the courtyard of the Holy Sepulchre Church during the mandate of Palestine. Dated 1920. (Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)
An exterior view of the Chapel of the Holy Sepulchre which was originally built by Helena, in 336 AD. Several religious groups worship in the buildings, among them Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Syrian, Coptic, Armenian and Abssinian. (Photo by David Lees/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)
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"It's one of the holiest sites for our religion and we prayed very hard these last three days that things would change and it would be open for us to be able to go in," said an American pilgrim, who gave her name only as Laurie.

An Israeli committee led by cabinet minister Tzachi Hanegbi will negotiate with church representatives to try to resolve the dispute over plans to tax commercial properties owned by the church in Jerusalem, Netanyahu's statement said.

Church leaders, in a joint statement, welcomed the dialog.

"After the constructive intervention of the prime minister, the churches look forward to engage with Minister Hanegbi, and with all those who love Jerusalem to ensure that our holy city, where our Christian presence continues to face challenges, remains a place where the three monotheistic faiths (Judaism, Islam and Christianity) may live and thrive together."

The Jerusalem Municipality, Netanyahu said, would suspend tax collection actions it had taken in recent weeks.

Mayor Nir Barkat has said the churches owed the city more than $180 million in property tax from their commercial holdings, adding that "houses of worship" would remain exempt.

While the review of the tax plan is under way, work on legislation that would allow Israel to expropriate land in Jerusalem that churches have sold to private real estate firms in recent years will also be suspended, Netanyahu said.

The bill's declared aim is to protect homeowners against the possibility private companies will not extend their leases of land on which their residences stand.

Churches are major landowners in Jerusalem. They say such a law would make it harder for them to find buyers for their land- sales that help to cover operating costs of their religious institutions.

(Writing by Jeffrey Heller, Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

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