After Birthright exception, Holy Land Christians decry Israel’s ‘racist’ travel ban

Churches asking Tourism Ministry for Christmas tourists to be allowed in as well as Jewish group, as Bethlehem and other cities ready for second yuletide season without visitors

People walk past a Christmas decorated church in Haifa, Israel, Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2021. (AP/Ariel Schalit)

A spokesman for Christian churches in the Holy Land on Wednesday accused Israel of discriminating against Christian tourists during the normally busy Christmas holiday season.

Amid the rise of the Omicron COVID-19 variant late last month, the Israeli government took the far-reaching step of shuttering its borders to foreigners for two weeks. Last week, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett ordered the directive be extended an additional 10 days, through December 21 at least.

But this week, Israeli officials decided to make an exception for Birthright, a popular program that provides free trips to Israel to young Jews from around the world. Groups from the United States are expected to arrive next week, with participants all fully vaccinated and remaining in small capsules.

For now, restrictions remain in effect for other foreign tourists, including Christian pilgrims who traditionally have flocked to sites like Jerusalem, Nazareth and Bethlehem, the biblical town in the West Bank revered by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus.

Wadie Abunassar, a spokesman and adviser to churches in the Holy Land, said various denominations were upset over the selective treatment and accused Israel of discriminating against Christian pilgrims.

“Racist discrimination should never be accepted in any way!” he wrote on Facebook. “I urge the Israeli authorities to treat all those who want to visit the country equally without any discrimination between religion.”

An official with the Catholic Church said church officials were shocked and angry by the Israeli decision. He said the church, along with other denominations, have appealed to Israel’s Tourism Ministry to allow Christian pilgrims to come for the holiday. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Children walk in front of shuttered shops in a street decorated ahead of Christmas, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, on December 19, 2020. (HAZEM BADER / AFP)

The Interior Ministry, which oversees entrance policies at the country’s borders, said the government’s ban on foreigners entering Israel remained in place.

But it said a number of exceptions have been made, including a “specific” decision for the Birthright program. It said officials would be discussing the possibility of other exceptions in the near future, but gave no further details.

The travel ban has crushed the tourism industry in Israel, and officials in Bethlehem, whose economy relies heavily on Christmas visitors, say the restrictions have ruined the holiday season for a second straight year. The West Bank does not have its own airport and most foreign visitors enter from Israel.

An airport worker rolls luggage trolleys inside a deserted hall at Israel’s Ben-Gurion International Airport in Lod, near Tel Aviv, on January 25, 2021. (Emmanuel DUNAND / AFP)

Aside from Birthright, exceptions to the ban have also been made for first-degree family members of those getting married, having a bar or bat mitzvah, or giving birth, though not always.

The policies have also angered Jewish tourists. Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai told The Times of Israel last week that the travel ban was damaging Israel’s ties with Jews abroad.

“Yes, it is damaging [ties]. I know it is, and it hurts me dearly because I very much want the relationship to continue,” Shai said in an interview on the sidelines of the Israeli American Council’s national summit in Florida.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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