How many patriarchs does it take to move a ladder?

A SMALL wooden ladder stands on a ledge above the entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the spot where Christians believe Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected. The ladder serves no purpose, but it has been moved only twice in the past two centuries. That is because all six Christian denominations that have a presence in the church must agree to rearrange things. They rarely do.

On February 25th, however, the main occupants—the Catholics, Greek Orthodox and Armenians—showed rare ecumenical unity. They decided to close the church in protest against an attempt by city hall to tax commercial property owned by the churches, and a draft law in the Knesset that would allow the government to expropriate land sold by churches to private buyers. Church leaders compared the measures to laws “enacted against the Jews during dark periods in Europe”.

Two days later Binyamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, stepped in. He said that a committee led by Tzachi Hanegbi, a cabinet minister, would work with the churches to resolve the dispute over taxes; the legislation in the Knesset would be put on hold. On February 28th the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was reopened, ending the immediate crisis before it could disrupt the Easter pilgrimage.

But the underlying problems persist. They have roots in the 16th century, when churches began buying property in Jerusalem from the Ottomans, who ruled the city. The churches built schools, hostels and hospitals for pilgrims and local Christians. The property served as a symbol of clerical power. By the 20th century, as Jerusalem grew, and was divided and reunited by war, the Christian population shrank. The land was increasingly used for commercial purposes. New neighbourhoods were built on plots leased from the churches, which are still the city’s largest private landowners.

Although the Israeli government has long exempted churches from taxes, Jerusalem’s municipality has demanded that their businesses pay local levies. The dispute was supposed to be resolved in talks with the Vatican, but these have dragged on for two decades. So in early February Nir Barkat, the mayor of Jerusalem, put liens on the churches’ bank accounts (now lifted) for unpaid taxes totalling 650m shekels ($187m). Mr Barkat may also have hoped to put pressure on the finance ministry to help cover a local budget deficit.

The proposal in the Knesset was considered even more noxious by the churches, which have begun to sell much of their residential property in West Jerusalem, the main Jewish half of the city. The proposal was meant to protect lease-holding tenants from having to negotiate with real-estate developers over the future of their homes. But the churches claim that the possibility of expropriation by the government would scare away potential buyers of their land. They see the measure as political posturing, especially as the Knesset member who proposed the law is a potential candidate for mayor.

The churches themselves have been accused of unjust practices. The Greek Orthodox patriarch in Jerusalem was fired after his church sold property to Jewish settler groups, which then evicted Palestinian tenants. Land issues in the city are inherently fraught. Much like the immovable ladder, that is unlikely to change.