Tel Aviv (AsiaNews) - The Israeli Ministry of Interior is refusing entry visas to priests and members of religious orders and is also reducing their period of stay in the Holy Land. Among them there are not only figures from the Arab world, but also well-known personalities and biblical experts from Europe and Africa. The restrictive policy has been exacerbated by the Shas, the fundamentalist party, that has returned to control the Ministry of Interior in the new Netanyahu government. It is causing new problems in the relationship between Israel and the Catholic Church and the Vatican.
The latest round in the Holy See-Israel negotiations concluded on Thursday 29 October, as foreseen, with a renewed reference to the good "atmospherics" and mutual good will, though with no sign as to when the much needed Agreement may be expected. Observers think it very positive though that a two day session for November also has been confirmed, and with it also the Plenary planned for 10 December, in the Vatican. It will be the first occasion for the new Under-Secretary for Relations with States, Monsignor Ettore Balestrero, to lead the Papal delegation.
The Agreement, which has been under discussion for more than ten years now, is intended to achieve security for the Church in Israel, in terms of reconfirming her historic tax exemptions and safeguarding the property of the Holy Places.
However new challenges for the Church's security appear daily, and not only in the fiscal or property sphere.
As expected, the return of the Fundamentalist party Shas to control of the powerful Interior Ministry in the present Israeli government has brought with it renewed trouble for clergymen and members of religious orders. In the nature of things in the Holy Land, the majority of those come from other countries and need admission to the territory of the State to be able to function.
In Israel's first years as a State, they were able to become residents (although even then almost never citizens). Later the State adopted a policy of denying residence and offering only "visas" that need to be renewed periodically. At first, such visas were given for five years at a time, later the period was reduced to one year for citizens of Arab countries (citing security concerns) and two years for Europeans.
On the last occasion that Shas controlled the Foreign Ministry, several years ago, the issuance and renewal of such visas was stopped altogether and a couple of hundred Church personnel were reduced to the category of illegal immigrants and risked arrest and deportation.
Only world-wide publicity and strong international pressure brought about the resumption of issuing visas, though under worse conditions.
Now Church sources report, problems are no longer confined to Arab clergy and religious. At least two priests from Africa expected at a biblical study centre in Jerusalem have not been issued visas, while several European priests, who have worked and lived in Israel for many years, have seen their applications for renewal of their two-year visas denied. Instead they have been offered only one year visas, even though Israel has been their home for many years and they are very well known.
At stake is the international character of the presence of the Catholic Church in the Holy Land. Like Rome, the Holy Land is a place where the world-wide Catholic Church becomes visible in all her diversity. Making it impossible in practice for seminarians, priests and religious from all over the world to live, worship and minister in the Holy Land threatens this unique character of the Church's presence in the earthly homeland of the Redeemer.
Catholic authorities in the Holy Land are extremely worried by this trend, but are mostly hesitant to speak out, for fear that any public statement might have adverse consequences for their institutions. However, if the present trend is not soon reversed, another very public "visa crisis" may not be far off.
In seeking to persuade the State to take back control of visa policy from the fundamentalists, Church officials can rely on the Fundamental Agreement between the Holy See and the State of Israel (1993). There, in Article 3, Paragraph 2, the State recognises the right of the Church to "deploy" its own personnel to Israel.
Reached by AsiaNews, the noted expert on Church-State relations in Israel, Franciscan Father David-Maria A. Jaeger, who was part of the bilateral team that wrote the Agreement, confirmed that this was understood on both sides as being the meaning of that treaty provision, and the precise reason for the otherwise unusual use of the word "deploy" in reference to Church personnel.
“Of course - he adds - later in that text, the Church recognises the right of State to ensure the safety of its people, and that this means, in the present context, that the State can in good faith decline to permit the entry of individuals who might pose a risk to public safety, but that the State may not otherwise substitute its judgement for that of the Church with regard to the personnel the Church may wish to 'deploy" from anywhere in the world to its own institutions, for its own purposes, in Israel”.
Father Jaeger has clarified that he cannot comment on the facts and violations here reported. But that as jurist he says he is “confident that the key to resolving any difficulties in the matter lies in the 1993 Fundamental Agreement”.