Israel denies entry to Christian clergy

Christian priests participate in a Christmas procession at Manger square in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, 24 December 2007. (Luay Sababa/MaanImages)

As the world celebrates this holiday season, Israel is blocking clergy from reaching their churches and Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem and elsewhere in the Holy Land. These Israeli actions are in blatant violation of international humanitarian law, block the right for religions to practice in the Holy Land, and defy every notion of basic common sense.

The Israeli authorities are arbitrarily denying entry to clergy and volunteers belonging to or working for Christian institutions and service providers. The clergy being harassed and denied entry to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory (OPT) join tens of thousands of ordinary foreign passport holders of Palestinian and non-Palestinian origin who wish to be with their families, work or study, as well as tourists and pilgrims. This is especially sad at a time of spiritual reflection and reunion of families, friends and communities when major celebrations of Christian, Muslim, and Jewish communities coincide over the same period.

In a continuing demonstration of Israel’s arbitrary denial of entry policy, and disregard for the Palestinian population’s right to practice their religion and worship freely, Israel sends a clear message to the international community that it has no intention whatsoever to use the recent political movement at the Annapolis summit in Washington DC as a pretext to bring its actions in line with international law.

Furthermore, it appears that Israel has recently rescinded the year-long multiple entry visas commonly given to Arab clergy for churches in both Palestine and in Israel (see Haaretz, “Israel Rescinds Arab Christian clergy travel rights in W. Bank,” 27 October 2007). Under the new rule, clergy who are now abroad, despite their holding valid Israeli multiple entry visas, are being denied re-entry into Israel and the OPT, where many of their churches are located. Future travel by these clergy will have to be coordinated with multiple Israeli agencies in a process which can take more than a year to complete. The process is not transparent, efficient, or certain. Israel states that the request comes from “security officials” without citing any problems or infringements to justify the change, nor can anyone in the Christian community recall any such problems.

In addition, there appears to be a new policy by Israel to refuse entry or visa extension for foreign, primarily Western, Christian volunteers working with various Christian organizations here. This is affecting the viability of these organizations and the normal connection with their supporters and fellow Christians in the countries that contribute to the presence of these Christian workers. They represent mainstream Christian and faith-based groups, such as the World Council of Churches and the American Friend’s Service Committee that advocate nonviolence and brotherhood and are in no way a threat to the security of Israel.

A more realistic explanation of Israel’s new policy is that many Christian clergy and workers here have become extremely effective advocates for the Christian communities with the outside world, speaking to Christian and Jewish groups in the US and Europe and to the US Congress on the harm being done to local Christians by the separation wall and Israeli military occupation policies. It is more likely that the intent of the law is to silence these critics.

This has become an addition to Israel’s unannounced policy which accelerated in early 2006 of arbitrary denial of entry to the OPT for foreign passport holding family members of Palestinian ID-holders, educators, business persons, health professionals, humanitarian works and others active in civil society. To date, despite high-level interventions by third state missions, international and human rights organizations, Israeli authorities have failed to provide a transparent policy on which foreign nationals wishing to enter or maintain their presence in the occupied Palestinian territory can rely. Instead, Israel has continued to pursue both policies and practices that fail to comply with international humanitarian law.

The Campaign calls on third states, religious leaders and congregations worldwide to protest Israel’s actions harming the Church community and to demand a clear, transparent and lawful policy for all foreign nationals wishing to enter the Holy Land.

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