03/27/2008, 00.00
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Israeli ministry contradicts itself: a Franciscan with a valid visa is turned away from Israel

by Arieh Cohen
The Israeli interior ministry seems to be working at cross purposes: it issues visas, and then does not recognise them. That is entirely the fault of the "secretiveness" that shrouds the procedure and criteria for issuing visas. There is also the need for the accords with the Vatican to be put into effect at last, in order to have clear rules for visas for ecclesiastical personnel.

Tel Aviv (AsiaNews) - A Franciscan priest, the member of a group of foreign theology students in Rome, has been turned back from the border by the Israeli security forces.  Although he had obtained a valid visa, the priest was sent back to Rome.

The priest is a citizen of a majority Muslim country in Asia, which does not have diplomatic relations with Israel.  But the Israeli interior ministry, having received precise information about the identity of the applicant, his nationality and his passport, had granted the visa and given permission for him to enter Israel.

Anxiety, dismay, and distress spread among the group of priests and religious sisters at the airport, for many of whom it was their first encounter - and what an encounter! - with the Jewish state.  The requests for reconsideration made by the ecclesiastical leader of the group, the vice director of the Roman representation of the Custody of the Holy Land, had no effect.  The religious in question was forced to take the first plane back to Rome, after undergoing eight hours of detention and interrogation.

The case is rekindling the controversy over the issuing (or better: over the non-issuance) of visas and residency permits for ecclesiastical personnel on the part of the Israeli government.  But there is another element: this time, the visa had been issued, but the agents of the same government that issued it then refused to honour and recognise it.

An expert on Church-state relations in Israel tells AsiaNews: "In order to avoid conflicts and misunderstandings in this area, there is no alternative to a bilateral pact, which would specify the mutual rights and duties in this regard.  It is at least since 1994 that, on the basis of the Fundamental Agreement between the Holy See and the State of Israel (1993), there has existed a bilateral commitment, still to be put into practise, to negotiate such an accord. 'Incidents' of this kind emphasise the necessity and urgency of this.  But it seems to me that even before a bilateral accord, Israel needs to disclose publicly the government norms that regulate the issuing of visas and residency permits.  These are so secret that not even the Israeli tribunals are able to force the interior ministry to reveal them to the judges.  In such circumstances, it is not surprising that even the agents of the ministry itself are not familiar with them, and proceed in contradictory fashion: some grant a visa, others deny it, not recognising the activity of the ministry itself . . ."

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