Israel’s Ministry of Interior for nearly two years has refused to grant or renew visas for Christian clergy and other religious officials, an apparent violation of international religious freedom agreements, The Jewish Week has learned.
Critics of the policy, which has prompted rising anger and frustration among Christian leaders, are blaming Shas, the fervently Orthodox Sephardic political party, which has been running the Interior Ministry.
They say Shas has implemented the restrictive visa policy in response to an "explosion" of foreign workers entering the country, and that it has affected nuns, priests and other religious figures.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s office is being warned that the policy threatens to damage Israel’s relations with the Catholic Church, Evangelical Christians and other pro-Israel religious groups.
Christians questioning the visa policy have been threatened with being reported to the police, one official said.
"The current policy if it continues will do serious harm to Israel’s foreign relations," according to a Feb. 11 letter by Gadi Golan, director of Israel’s Department for Interreligious Affairs, obtained by The Jewish Week.
"It moreover involves humiliation and threats against applicants that are totally unacceptable in a democratic state of law, especially as it contradicts our commitment to guarantee freedom of religion and worship," the letter stated.
The letter, written in Hebrew and translated into English for The Jewish Week, was sent to the offices of Sharon, Israeli President Moshe Katzav, the Foreign Ministry, the Israeli embassy in Washington and Israel’s ambassador to the Vatican.
The letter notes that the Catholic Church has suffered most under the policy. The Church is so concerned that Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano raised the issue with Katzav, asking him to "address it urgently," the letter said.
A spokesman for the Interior Ministry, Tova Ellenson, did not return several e-mails seeking comment on the ministry’s visa policy.
"It’s really an embarrassment," Eugene Fisher, director of Catholic-Jewish relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told The Jewish Week. "I don’t know if it is religious bigotry, but it has that effect of curtailing Christian access to holy places."
"It is the result of a ruling by the current minister of the Interior [the outgoing Eli Yishai]. In trying to keep out foreigners, they are keeping out church workers going to work in monasteries, convents and Christian hospitals doing the Church’s work," Fisher continued.
He said the policy seems to be in direct violation of a 1994 agreement between the Holy See and the State of Israel that guarantees religious freedom for Christians in Israel.
In one case, Fisher said, the ministry refused to renew the visa of the head of the Church’s Pontifical Biblical Institute in Jerusalem. Other cases involve the refusal to renew visas for Catholic nuns and seminarians studying to be priests in Jerusalem.
But the issue has also affected other religious groups.
"While the policy has had the most adverse affect on the Catholic Church and its academic institutions, the policy is indiscriminate towards all other religions and has affected organizations as diverse as the Christian Embassy in Jerusalem, the Bahai World Center in Haifa and the Japanese pro-Zionist movement, the Makuya, as well as individual American citizens doing volunteer work in the country," the letter said.
Golan calls for the Interior Ministry to be ordered to comply with "Israel’s internationally binding commitments [regarding religious freedom] to which she is a signatory."
"The present policy is not only a breach of these, but plays into the hands of Israel’s detractors and enemies in the world," he wrote. "Moreover it alienates Israel’s friends, including Evangelical supporters of Israel such as the Christian Embassy, which when questioning the Minister of Interior’s policy received threats to report them to the police."
Roman Catholic Father Michael McGarry, rector of the Tantur Ecumenical Institute for Theological Studies in Jerusalem, told The Jewish Week "horror stories" of nuns in wheelchairs who have lived in Jerusalem for years being denied visa renewals in recent months.
"It’s come to me over the last 23 months that Christians who had regularly gotten visas are being denied and delayed," he said.
When they ask for a reason, they were given none, he said.
"There’s a lot of anger," said Father McGarry, who runs the Jerusalem-based institute devoted to theological research and pastoral studies that serves Roman Catholic, Protestant, Anglican and Orthodox participants from all over the world.
Father McGarry partly blamed Shas’ provincial attitude toward Christians.
"I think the Shas Party is a xenophobic, right-wing religious party that has not a lot of concern with pleasing the Western world, and Christians are not one of their priorities," he said.
Father McGarry also acknowledged other contributing factors: the rising problem of illegal foreign workers in Israel; security concerns; Israelis’ general neglect for Christian concerns; the lack of a political voice by the tiny Christian community; and severe government budget problems.
"To say this is simply anti-Christian is oversimplified," he said.
Father McGarry said the Interior Ministry apparently has not cared to make distinctions between Christians seeking to study and serve in the Holy Land and the foreign workers they are attempting to keep out.
Father McGarry said he understood Israeli security concerns and noted that some of the seminarians being refused visa renewals are Palestinian and Jordanian. But he pointed out they had been coming to Israel for several years and were enrolled in bona fide Catholic institutions.
"It’s a very complicated and complex issue," Father McGarry acknowledged.
Rabbi David Rosen, director of international interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, said the visa policy has not affected tourists but rather Christians who want to spend a few months or more as a student, teacher, worker or volunteer in Israel.
Rabbi Rosen, who is Modern Orthodox and based in Jerusalem, also blamed Shas and rising anti-immigrant feelings.
"The reason has been both xenophobic attitudes among officials in control and also directives from Shas to limit visas of non-Jews because of the ‘explosion’ in the numbers of foreign workers," he said.
Rabbi Rosen noted that even with Sharon’s new government coalition, in which Interior will likely pass from Shas to the arch-secular Shinui Party, visa problems would continue for months.
"Even if the new government is sworn in next week, and even if they decide to change the policy immediately, it will take a couple of months at least before anything happens," he said.
Nevertheless, Rabbi Rosen said, "I sincerely hope that this has been but a brief lapse of misbehavior on the part of the Israeli Ministry of Interior. I trust that under new management … Interior will address this issue in a manner that is consistent with Israel’s democratic character and in accordance with the state’s commitment to the principle of freedom of religion."
- State of Israel
- Secretary of State
- Moshe Katzav
- David Rosen
- Eric J. Greenberg
- Eugene Fisher
- Israeli embassy
- minister of the Interior
- Gadi Golan
- Tova Ellenson
- Angelo Sodano
- Michael McGarry
- Holy See
- Ariel Sharon
- Eli Yishai
- Israel News
- Staff Writer
- Prime Minister
- Catholic Church