Israeli authorities impede Christians’ access to holy sites

When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed a rare joint meeting of the United States Senate and the House of Representatives on May 24, he declared that Israel “will not return to the indefensible borders of 1967."

Netanyahu also stated that Jerusalem, which Israel has controlled since 1967 and annexed in 1980, “must never again be divided."

That means that most of Christianity's holy sites will remain under Israeli authority.

Unlike neighbouring Muslim-majority countries and territories, Israel is a democratic and largely tolerant society.

However, the Jewish state's relations with the wider Christian community in Israel and the disputed territories have been strained by security measures that impede Christians' access to holy sites and the free movement of clergy.

Of the approximately 7.4 million Israelis living in Israel, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, more than 80 per cent are Jewish, according to the International Religious Freedom Report 2010, published by the US Department of State. Muslims make up 16.5 per cent of the population and Christians account for 2.1 per cent.

While freedom of religion is a right under Israeli Basic Law, notes the state department report, non-Jews experience some “governmental and legal discrimination."

For example, the report states that Arab Christian clergy are “generally prohibited entry into Gaza to visit congregations or ministries under their pastoral authority."

Sources confirm that priests are also regularly prevented by Israeli security forces from travelling to the West Bank. And some have seen their visas not renewed, possibly for political reasons.

“One very glaring case of impeding the work of clergy is the recent case of Bishop Suheil Dawani of the Anglican Church," Sami El-Yousef writes in an e-mail. Yousef is the Jerusalem-based regional director of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA), a papal humanitarian and pastoral support agency.

Last August, Dawani, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem, had his Jerusalem residency permit revoked. Israeli authorities allege that the West Bank-born Palestinian Christian illegally sold land to Palestinians. He denies the charge and remains in the holy city while his legal bid to have his permit restored is considered by the courts.

Fred Hiltz, Primate of Canada's Anglican Church, expressed concern about Dawani's plight in a letter to the Government of Israel, says a spokesperson for the archbishop. In the letter, Hiltz, who is currently in Jerusalem on unrelated church business, is said to have urged the Israelis to allow the bishop to continue his ministry.

The security barrier being constructed by Israel in and around East Jerusalem, states the religious freedom report, inhibits “the ability of Palestinians to practice their religion, seriously restricting access by West Bank Muslims and Christians to holy sites in Jerusalem and the West Bank."

“During Holy Week," writes Yousef, “Israel blocked entry to the Old City and prevented worshippers from having access to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, even for Christians who reside in the Holy City."

Under the Protection of Holy Sites Law of 1967, sacred sites of all faith groups in Israel are supposedly protected from harm.

However, the Catholic Church apparently doesn't believe that the law offers enough protection for the vast majority of the more than 70 Christian holy sites in Israeli controlled territories.

The Vatican has undertaken negotiations with the Israeli government to recognize and protect all holy sites. Currently, only a handful of sites, such as the Holy Sepulchre, are officially protected.

Sites not designated as protected can be altered and even destroyed.

The ongoing negotiations also cover a myriad of other issues, including visas for clergy, says Carl Hetu, national secretary of CNEWA Canada.

Earlier this year, Hetu, at the request of the Canadian Catholic Bishops Conference, travelled to Jerusalem as a member of the Holy Land coordination committee.

The purpose of that international body, which was established by Pope John Paul II 10 years ago, is to bring Catholics from the West to the Holy Land to listen to and learn about the concerns of the region's dwindling Christian population.

A representative of the Holy See met with the committee in January, informing it of the status of the Vatican-Israel negotiations.

The negotiations at that point, explains Hetu, were “stalling" and the Vatican wanted Israel “to be a bit more open to get things settled."

He says that Christians in the Holy Land, most of whom are Palestinians, want it recognized that they have “a long historical right to be there."

And the people he met with in Jerusalem told him that Christians in Israel and the disputed territories should “have access to the holy sites, like any other people."

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About the author

Special to ChristianWeek

Geoffrey P. Johnston is a Canadian rights journalist. Follow him on Twitter @GeoffyPJohnston.