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Fate of Lutheran hospital in doubt

Augusta Victoria sits on the Mount of Olives in East Jerusalem

Leaders of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), including the presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), met with Israeli President Moshe Katsav on September 5. During a 35-minute meeting they discussed prospects for Middle East peace and expressed specific financial concerns about the future of Augusta Victoria Hospital.
The Rev. Mark S. Hanson, LWF president and ELCA presiding bishop, Chicago; the Rev. Ishmael Noko, LWF general secretary, Geneva; and the Rev. Munib A. Younan, LWF vice president, met with Katsav while in Jerusalem and Bethlehem for the LWF Council meeting August 31-September 6.
Augusta Victoria Hospital, the LWF-operated health care facility on the Mount of Olives in East Jerusalem, represents the LWF’s commitment to peace and humanitarian service, Noko said. It serves the medical needs of Palestinian refu-gees, and it is open to everyone, he said.
Presently the hospital is facing the possibility of paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxes to the State of Israel. In 2002 Israel took the LWF to court seeking to void a long-standing tax exemption the hospital has had since 1966 with Jordan. The exemption was continued under the State of Israel in 1967.
Israel won the case in a district court. The LWF appealed the verdict to the Israeli Supreme Court. The LWF leaders are concerned the hospital’s future may be jeopardized if the LWF loses the appeal.
“It’s a difficult situation for us to continue with humanitarian services with the imposition of taxes. We hope that we can find a solution,” Noko said.
Hanson warned that if the government of Israel doesn’t intervene and solve the tax case fairly, it could have negative consequences for Israel.
“It would appear that the government of Israel doesn’t want to find a way to sustain this humanitarian service. If we have to close the hospital, I would think that could be a political liability for Israel,” he told Katsav.
More and more people are watching this case and its implications for the hospital, including the German president and the prime minister of Norway, both of whom have expressed concern to the Israeli government, Hanson said.
Avi Granot, adviser to Katsav, said Augusta Victoria is registered as a hospital not a religious institution. All hospitals in Israel are taxed, he said. However, the Rev. Mark B. Brown, LWF regional representative, Jerusalem, said, “The hospital is unique. We’re serving people who are not part of the national health insurance (plan) who have little or no capacity to pay.”
Younan said, “We hope this case can be solved because it is a burden on us. It’s not good for anybody.”
The case has political and religious implications, but the Lutherans “understand the complexities you’re facing,” Hanson said to Katsav. He asked Katsav and his staff for a written proposal to resolve the case out of court.