Israel’s Interior Ministry is revamping its procedures for allowing Christian clerics, religious students and volunteers to enter the country in response to growing complaints by Christian groups, The Jewish Week has learned.
The groups said they have had serious trouble in recent months obtaining entry visas and renewals for their flock.
A senior adviser to new Interior Minister Avraham Poraz told The Jewish Week Tuesday that the system being implemented this week will require those seeking religious visas to first obtain confirmation about their religious affiliation from the Ministry of Religious Affairs before being granted a church-related visa.
Interior official Tibbi Rabinowitz said the new policy should solve the problem of mounting visa denials or delays experienced over the last two years by Christian and other religious groups.
"The policy was changed," he confirmed in a phone interview. "They can get their visas if we get proof from the religious ministry."
Rabinowitz said the new policy was adopted Sunday at a meeting of top Interior Ministry officials.
Israel in recent months has been strictly enforcing its visa policies, in part over concern about a flood of foreign workers into the country, which has been on high security alert.
The new policy comes as Roman Catholic officials in Israel issued a report charging that the Israeli government has been seriously hampering the Church’s sacred mission in the Holy Land by denying entry visas to 86 priests and laypeople.
The report by a Church committee stated that the Interior Ministry’s recent restrictive visa policy "is having serious effects on the Catholic Church in Israel and the Palestinian Territories."
But The Jewish Week has learned also that some pro-Israel Evangelical Christian groups already have resolved dozens of similar problems in obtaining entry visas and renewals for their religious workers.
These disparate developments come after The Jewish Week revealed last month that the Interior Ministry has for nearly two years failed to renew or grant new entry visas to Christians seeking to do charity work or engage in religious studies.
Some critics charged that the Interior Ministry, controlled until last month by the fervently Orthodox Shas party, had been targeting Christians to expel them from Israel.
But under Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s new coalition government formed last month, the secular Shinui party now controls the Interior Department, headed by Poraz.
Rabinowitz said Tuesday he was not familiar with the Catholic report but said the Catholics should reapply for their visas under the new policy.
"I don’t see a problem for them. If there is, they can contact me and I will intervene," he said. "So I believe that from now on, everything will be much easier."
Christian leaders in Israel say their ability to attract qualified religious volunteers and staff is especially dire these days because of the continuing violence and awful economy.
By denying visas to those willing to come, Israel has caused serious staff shortages, as well as preventing students from completing studies to become priests and religious teachers, they said.
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, president of the Chicago-based International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, said he helped resolve dozens of visa problems for Evangelical groups last month by arranging meetings for them with key Interior Ministry staffers.
Rabbi Eckstein contends the Christian visa problem is not a case of religious bigotry. Rather, he said, it is the result of a crackdown by Israel on illegal foreign workers entering Israel and the disappearance from government scrutiny of 25,000 people who had entered Israel with a religious visa.
Compounding the issue is Israel’s increased security enforcement because of the intifada.
Bona fide Christian religious workers and students "got caught in that dragnet," Rabbi Eckstein explained.
He said he arranged meetings between top Interior Ministry officials and leaders of three Christian Evangelical groups that maintain offices in Jerusalem: Christian Friends of Israel, Bridges for Peace and the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem.
"It was a successful intervention," said Rabbi Eckstein, who met with Hertzel Getz, whom he called Israel’s point man on the visa issue. "We were able to resolve immediate cases and set up a system of communication to deal with future cases."
Rabbi Eckstein said the visa situation got so bad for Evangelicals that in one case, Israeli police arrested and handcuffed two Evangelical workers off the street and jailed them for not having proper visas.
"They were treated very poorly and they weren’t given the option to make a phone call," Rabbi Eckstein said.
Asked about the scope of the visa problem, ICEJ executive director Malcolm Hedding declined to elaborate.
"We have settled this issue to our satisfaction and we do not feel that it should enter the public domain," he said in an e-mail.
Last week’s report by the Catholic Church committee said the 86 applications for entry visas and residence permits for religious personnel have been requested but not yet granted.
The report is based on a survey "conducted among the Catholic Churches present in the Holy Land" and was delivered to Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the Vatican’s ambassador in Jerusalem.
Without a change in government policy, the report said, residence visas of 22 Jordanian seminarians in Beit Jala apparently will not be renewed in the coming months.
Religious personnel whose cases are pending come from 13 countries, although the great majority, 70, come from Arab countries, notably Jordan and Lebanon.
"In the present political context, the Church in the Holy Land understands perfectly well that the state of Israel must take all the security measures it deems necessary to protect its own safety and that of its citizens," the report said. "However, it finds unjustified the indiscriminate application of these measures to the religious domain."
Rabbi Eckstein said he offered to intervene on behalf of the Catholic Church but was turned down. "I was told no, therefore I can’t comment on their issues," he said.
Rabbi Eckstein dismissed arguments that the Christian visa policy was a campaign by Shas to "target Christians for ejection from the country." Based on his meetings with the Evangelicals and Getz, he called the problem a "misunderstanding" stemming from Israel’s growing concern over the "disappearance" of 25,000 people who entered the country with Church-related visas at a time of high alert and faltering economy.
"The problem is the abuse of the system by thousands of people and the inability of the government to control it," Rabbi Eckstein said.
Rabbi Eckstein explained that indeed there were real problems with all of the Evangelical visas he presented to Getz. Some had recently expired. Some visa holders who left Israel for a few days failed to properly notify authorities upon their return, as required.
But while in the past these technical violations were overlooked or given more leeway, such flexibility ended when the Interior Ministry began vigorously enforcing the law.
Unfortunately, Rabbi Eckstein said, Interior officials failed to publicize or explain the new strict enforcement, leaving Christian officials angry and bewildered by the change in status quo.
"All of a sudden staffers for these pro-Israel Christian ministries were being kicked out and their biggest problem was they didn’t know what they were doing wrong," he said. "There was no communication, no explanations, and they couldn’t set up meetings with the Interior ministry.
"They didn’t change their feelings about Israel, but this certainly got them bitter."
An Interior Ministry spokeswoman did not acknowledge any widespread visa problems for Christians over the last two years.
"There were no changes in our policy concerning visas supplied to priests or Christians," Tova Ellinson said in an e-mail. "All demands are taken care of according to fixed criteria as in the law."
As for future problems, Rabbi Eckstein said there is now a line of communication between the Evangelical groups and Getz, who he said has appointed a deputy to deal with religious visa issues.
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