07/22/2004, 00.00
ISRAEL - HOLY LAND

Visa denied to African and Asian priests

Discrimination stems from fear they might become illegal immigrants in Israel

Jerusalem (AsiaNews) – For about a month African and Asian priests and nuns have not been granted visas to visit the Holy Land for fear that they might stay in Israel as illegal immigrants.

Since late June priests and nuns from India as well as priests from Burkina Faso, South Africa and Mozambique have not been issued the necessary visa to enter Israel. Behind the denial are apprehensions by Israeli consular officials that the clergymen and women stay behind in the country illegally. 

It is a clear case of discrimination since the African and Asian priests and nuns requested the visa as part of larger groups of pilgrims. Western or European pilgrims had no problem getting the visa. For example, on June 11 two groups of pilgrims from India and Burkina Faso joined fellow pilgrims in Paris to go to the Holy Land. Unlike their European counterparts, they were refused the entry visa to Israel. They turned to the Apostolic Nunciature in Paris but with little success. Israel's Embassy in France released a statement saying that it could not issue entry visas to Africans and Asians. Four South African priests also had their request for a visa turned down. They too were joining a group of European pilgrims going to the Holy Land, who like the first group of European travellers, were granted a visa.

Agents from Tesco-Terrasanta, the travel agency that organised the pilgrimage, contacted Israel's Interior Ministry in Jerusalem seeking explanations. They were told that "the ministry does not grant visas to individuals. The latter must turn for such matters to our Embassy in Paris." The embassy, in turn, stated that "we do not have any directive. You must contact the Interior Ministry."

The riddle worthy of a Kafka's novel was finally solved for the time being by the intervention of the Nunciature in Jerusalem and the direct action of Israel's Foreign Minister Gadi Golan who ordered the embassy in Paris to issue the visas.

Such incidents are however far from being isolated. Last week a Mozambican priest who wanted to travel to Jerusalem from Lisbon (Portugal) saw his visa application denied. Same answer, same reason: "Fear that the individual will remain in Israel as an illegal immigrant." 

Church sources in Jerusalem stress the paradox of the situation. "On the one hand, Israel advertises itself as a place for tourism and a destination for pilgrimages in order to shore up its economic recovery; on the other, its bureaucracy adds hurdles to obstacles to would-be visitors.  If Israeli authorities were really concerned with priests staying as illegal immigrants, they could just issue them temporary visas with an attached expulsion order."

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