April 8 2004
Christians in Israel decry residency permit delays
Officials deny that backlog is an attack on freedoms
By Peter Hermann
JERUSALEM – The nuns wanted to buy sheets for their orphanage, so
they headed to a shopping mall. They were 78 and 56 years old,
dressed in the blue and white habits of the Rosary Sisters.
They were venturing into the city with expired Israeli residency
permits, a problem not of their making.
Checking their papers, a security guard at the mall’s entrance
refused to let the sisters in, and an Israeli border police officer
armed with an M-16 lined them up against a wall and searched them.
They were released two hours later.
Church leaders say the incident this week at the Malha Mall was due
not to carelessness on the part of the nuns but to pervasive delays
by the Israeli government in granting or renewing residency permits
to Christian clergy – delays that officials of the Roman Catholic
Church say verge on infringing on religious freedom.
Dozens of Roman Catholic priests, nuns and monks living in Israel are
now subject to arrest as they await new residency permits, church
officials say. Members of other Christian sects, including Greek and
Armenian Orthodox, are facing similar problems.
“They took the elderly sister and put her against a wall and searched
her in a very unacceptable way,” said Sister Agatha Baharm, the
younger of the two nuns who were detained. “I told the police officer
that the sister is old and didn’t feel well. She has had two heart
operations, and she started to tremble.”
“They say it’s a matter of security and we should wait,” said the
chancellor of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, Shawki Baterian.
“But if this situation continues, I think Israel could rightly be
accused of preventing us from trying to practice our faith.”
Church officials in Jerusalem and at the Vatican have exchanged
letters with Israeli authorities, and both sides said they expect the
backlog of pending visa applications to be swiftly resolved.
“It is not by any means a political issue,” said Jonathan Peled, a
spokesman for Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “It is simply
bureaucratic, technical issues that have to be dealt with.” He called
the detention of the nuns “silly and unnecessary.”
Officials at the Interior Ministry, which oversees immigration and
visa issues, said officers have been ordered to take care when
dealing with religious figures. “It is our policy to help everybody
who comes from the church,” said spokeswoman Tova Ellinson. “We are
trying to solve this thing. It won’t take long. Nobody is going to be
arrested from the church.”
Church officials could not provide numbers of those affected by the
backlog. The Latin Patriarchate said about 50 members of the clergy
have expired visas, out of an estimated 500 nuns, 300 monks and 100
Roman Catholic priests in Israel and the West Bank. The Rev.
Athanasius Marcora, a Franciscan, put the number higher, saying 40
members of his order lack the required paperwork to legally reside in
Israel. The Rosary Sisters said 23 of its members now lack the proper
Their status is a sensitive issue in a country where the landscape is
venerated by three religions – Judaism, Islam and Christianity.
Israeli officials acknowledge that there is a problem to be resolved,
but they blame it on the innocent workings of a notoriously
Church leaders say priests and nuns from Arab countries are having
the toughest problems. Marcora, of St. Savior’s Monastery in
Jerusalem’s Old City, said there is a danger of having too few
priests who speak Arabic.
Marcora is from Austin, Texas, and has lived in Israel for 11 years.
He said he renewed his residency visa without problem two years ago.
But he said many Arab priests at his parish are unable to return
after leaving for trips abroad. One Syrian priest, he said, did not
return to Damascus when his father died, fearing that he would not be
“The mission of the church is in jeopardy without the presence of
Arab Catholics,” Marcora said. “The fact is that these people are
prevented from coming here, or they can’t stay here once they
The Rosary Sisters nuns are both of Arab descent. Sister Agatha is an
Israeli-Arab who was born in Nazareth. The elder nun, Sister Hani
Akiki, is from Lebanon but has lived in Israel for 45 years. Her visa
renewal has been delayed for three years, Sister Agatha said, with no
reason given. Both sisters have documents from the Interior Ministry
explaining that their visas are pending.
Two weeks ago, police officers detained a Franciscan monk from St.
Peter’s Church in Jaffa after he pulled out his expired visa. Israeli
foreign ministry officials intervened and prevented his deportation.
The monk, through a church official, declined to comment.
The issue has reached the desks of Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. In an interview with the Israeli
newspaper Maariv, the head of the foreign minister’s religious
affairs department, Gadi Golan, said, “We’ve already been compared to
Iran in this matter. People complain that we are violating
international conventions and do not allow freedom of worship.”
Golan, reached yesterday, declined to comment further.
Israeli officials deny that clergy are being singled out but say they
may have become caught up in tight security measures. Members of the
clergy, officials say, are not the only people who have been briefly
A month ago, police mistook a Chinese diplomat for an immigrant
worker and detained him outside his embassy in Tel Aviv. The diplomat
had left his identification in his office but was taken to a police
station instead of being allowed to prove his identity. He was later
released with an apology.
This week, a Nokia executive visiting from Finland was strip-searched
upon entry at the airport. He was allowed to enter Israel, but he
instead took the next flight home.
Church leaders are reluctant to charge that politics is a factor in
the visa slowdown, but Catholic priests have repeatedly criticized
Israeli policies toward Palestinians. The Latin Patriarch, Michel
Sabbah, is a Palestinian, and he recently lashed out at Israel’s
separation barrier and the killing of Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the
spiritual leader of the Palestinian militant group Hamas.
In his annual Easter message, Sabbah said he hoped that Israel and
the Palestinians would soon have new leaders. He said it was time for
both sides “to come back to reason and reconsider what they have done
in order to avoid for themselves and for their people the sin of more