The Foreign Ministry on Thursday denied allegations of religious bias after Christians accused Israel of discrimination in the granting of special permits for foreigners to enter the country during a travel ban amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“These unfounded allegations of discriminatory conduct are outrageous, false and dangerous,” the ministry said in a statement. “We expect religious leaders to not engage in and promote baseless discourse of hatred and incitement that only serve to add fuel to the fire of antisemitism and can lead to violence and cause harm to innocent people.”
A ban on foreign entry was reinstated in Israel at the end of November due to fears of the Omicron variant, and it has been extended until at least December 21.
But amid the ban, a recent report indicated that an exemption was made for “Jewish tourism,” including Birthright groups, but not for Christian groups looking to visit for Christmas.
Wadie Abunassar, a spokesman and adviser to churches in the Holy Land, said Wednesday that various denominations were upset over the apparent 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.”
The ministry denied the report, saying the exemptions were being granted without any connection to religion.
“The Committee examines each request without bias or discrimination toward any race or religion,” it said. “In recent days, the Exceptions Committee has issued numerous permits, to both Jews and Christians. Some of the approved requests were those that came from the church authorities in Israel, including permits for priests to enter the country for the upcoming Christian holidays.”
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.
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.