Shortly before opening its doors to Pope Francis on Sunday, Israel’s Interior Ministry barred several dozen Middle East Christians from attending an empowerment conference in Jerusalem, denying visas to half of the 40 applicants and detaining and eventually deporting six British nationals of Iranian origin, the organizers claim.

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 Iraq (the Kurdish areas), along with several Armenians and Iranian refugees. The “Vicar of Baghdad,” Canon Andrew White, was the guest of honor.

The participants, including two Kurdish parliamentarians who had been granted permission to travel to Israel by the Kurdish Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, one Coptic lawyer and several church leaders, were to take part in a conference that sought to “try and advance greater Christian presence in Muslim lands” and to “encourage them to get out of their ghettos,” Pileggi told The Times of Israel in a phone interview.

Pileggi, a supporter of Israel who knew each of the participants personally, many from a similar conference in 2012, submitted on March 23, some seven weeks before the start of the conference, 40 entry visa requests. But for weeks, despite constant pressure, none of the requests were processed, activists claimed.

“Two weeks before the conference, the organizers were horrified to discover that the official dealing with the visa requests had not even opened the envelopes,” Dr. Elihu Richter, a retired professor of community medicine at Hebrew University-Hadassah School of Public Health and Community Medicine, wrote to Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar.

Vicar Pileggi giving communion to participants in the conference (photo credit: Carino Casas/ Christ Church Jerusalem)

Vicar Pileggi giving communion to participants in the conference (photo credit: Carino Casas/ Christ Church Jerusalem)

Two days before the conference was to start, the Turkish citizens and five of the 10 Egyptian nationals were allowed entry. Richter, though, in both his letter to Sa’ar and in a telephone interview, said he felt that the procedure was random.

“Strong doubts about the integrity and professional quality of the vetting procedure are suggested by the fact that all those expelled were here previously — without problems — two years ago, and all those approved have never been here!” he wrote.

A spokeswoman for the Population and Migration Authority, after first reporting that she found no record of the events described, said 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.”

Pileggi called that assertion “baloney!” and said “never once did they lift a finger to help us or tell us another way to get the visas.” 

The Shin Bet internal security service, which allegedly submitted a security assessment that barred the British nationals from entry on national security grounds – Iran has attempted to send agents into Israel under the guise of tourists with legitimate foreign passports – has not yet responded to a request for comment.

Christ Church Jerusalem (photo credit: Ranbar/ Wikimedia Commons cc-by-sa-3.0)

Christ Church Jerusalem (photo credit: Ranbar/ Wikimedia Commons cc-by-sa-3.0)

But the British citizens who hailed originally from Iran, converts to Christianity, did not need visas. Pileggi estimated that tens of thousands of Iranians have converted to Christianity in recent years and said that the religious shift “melts some of [the converts'] hostility to Israel.” Seeking to take advantage of this openness, he invited six British citizens of Iranian origin to take part in the conference.

They arrived at Ben-Gurion Airport on May 9 and were stopped at passport control. Although each had an invitation from Pileggi, all were detained. A young woman in the group, held for 10 hours, was described by Richter as “inconsolable for days.” She told him, he said, that she “had never been treated more inhumanely in her life.”

The remaining five were kept in detention until May 11, when they were brought before a judge. “Justice is not being done for you,” Richter quoted her as acknowledging to the British-Iranians, but, in the face of security considerations, she said, she was “hesitant to take a chance.” The five were deported later that day.

The British citizens complained of unsanitary conditions and inadequate food and water. Richter, a founder of the Jerusalem Center for Genocide Prevention, alleged that the six were barred from speaking with one another and from contact with outsiders, denied reading material, and subjected to rude, aggressive and humiliating questioning.

Pileggi said the issue was larger than the single group, and that, with the center of gravity in the Christian world shifting toward developing countries, Israel had to improve its visa application system if it were interested in continuing to attract Christian tourism.

“These people put their reputation at stake to come to Israel,” he said, “and the government of Israel can’t be bothered to give them a reply.”