An Israeli official on Thursday corroborated a report in The Times of Israel on Monday, which stated that the Interior Ministry barred 26 Middle Eastern Christian tourists from attending a Jerusalem conference earlier in May out of negligence and institutional ignorance rather than security needs or procedural incompatibility.
“The behavior of the Interior Ministry shows a lack of understanding of the needs of minorities, especially Christians, to come to the Holy Land for religious purposes,” the official said.
“It’s sad that this happened one week before the entire country got ready for the pope’s visit,” he said, adding that the “policy of misunderstanding” and the “lack of willingness” to process visa requests from Christian pilgrims from the Middle East and other developing countries harms both Christians abroad and those who live here, many of whom send their sons to serve in the army.
The Crossroads Conference 2014, run by Vicar David Pileggi, the head of Christ Church Jerusalem – the oldest Protestant church in the Middle East and one with Zionist roots that precede Theodor Herzl – was to host 100 Christians from Egypt, Jordan and Iraqi Kurdistan, along with several Armenians and Iranian refugees. The “Vicar of Baghdad,” Canon Andrew White, was the guest of honor.
Forty of the participants required visas to enter Israel and, though Pileggi submitted visa requests seven weeks in advance and said in an interview that he could vouch for all of the invitees, only 20 visas were produced – amid pressure and only 48 hours before the beginning of the conference. Six Iranian converts to Christianity, all British citizens and thus not requiring a visa, were detained at Ben-Gurion International Airport and deported several days later.
The official said it was unreasonable that Israel — which managed to establish a system for to 10,000 of its Muslim citizens to leave the country every year via Jordan, receive a one-time-only passport from the Hashemite kingdom, and travel to Mecca to fulfill their religious obligation of the hajj in an enemy country — “at the same time prevents Christians from the Middle East from coming to the Holy Land.”
A spokeswoman for Population and Migration Authority within the Interior Ministry told The Times of Israel, in response to the initial complaints, that “their entry was not refused, but rather their request to enter as a tourist group, because tour groups have different regulations and they did not meet those regulations. It was explained to them from the beginning that they had to submit standard requests… but they continued to work through the tour group department.”
The anonymous official, echoing a statement by Pileggi, called the explanation “nonsense.”
Moreover, he said, citing security concerns as the reason for not allowing entry to Israel was in this case “using the name of security in vain.” He said he understood the security situation well “and still I do not accept that that was the problem.”
Several established travel agencies dealing with Christian tourism from developing countries have thus far refused to speak on record about the difficulty in attaining visas, citing possible blow-back from the authorities. “Dealing with [visa requests for] Christian Arabs,” said one travel agent, who refused to be identified, “is a nightmare.”