Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, March 2003, page 65

Special Report

Jerusalem Patriarch Protests Israel’s “Hindrance” of Catholic Clergy, Seminarians

By Patricia Lynn Morrison

The leader of Latin Catholics in Jerusalem has strongly protested the Israeli government’s “unjustifiable hindering” of the church’s pastoral activity in the region.

In an official statement issued Dec. 13, Patriarch Michel Sabbah noted that the patriarchate, the equivalent of a major archdiocesan see, which “represents the principal Catholic church in Jerusalem,” has been the subject of harassment by the Israeli government in recent months, particularly by inaction in regard to needed visas and residency permits for seminarians and church workers.

Several parish leaders, seminary staff and representatives of religious orders in the Holy Land said in phone interviews Dec. 28 that the government’s foot-dragging in issuing or renewing visas for Catholic church workers is effectively paralyzing movement in and out of the country, and consequently the church’s pastoral work.

The patriarch’s statement specifically referred to “different measures” taken by the government in regard to the Latin Catholic “Arab clergy and Jordanian seminarians.” Father Maroun Laham, the seminary rector, was in Jordan and was delayed re-entering Israel at the time of the interviews, but several church leaders who were interviewed said that a simple process that normally takes a few weeks to a month or two at most now is delayed for months at a time.

“I have seminarians here now who cannot get their visas,” Father Faysal Hijazen, a Jordanian who is vice rector of the major seminary in Beit Jala, said in a phone interview. He noted that a Jordanian priest in neighboring Beit Sahour, Father Majdi al Syriani, had applied for the renewal of his visa in May and was still waiting. Without the requisite visa, residents working in Israel/Palestine cannot leave the country, for fear of not being allowed back in. And staying on an expired visa also carries the risk of deportation.

Brother Neil Kieffe, an American who has been missioned at Bethlehem University for the past 12 years, said that he and several of his fellow De La Salle Christian Brothers are all still waiting for visas. “In two days, I’m illegal,” he said Dec. 28.

Sabbah’s statement noted that “entry visas into the country have been refused and the renewal of residency permits for some has been put off indefinitely.” In addition to hindering the church’s ministry in the region by making travel impossible for priests, “these actions threaten the very existence of the seminary.”

Two-thirds of the seminarians are Jordanian, as are the majority of Latin Catholic priests working in Palestine and Israel, with a few Syrian or Lebanese. Difficulties in getting students in and out of Palestine forced the patriarchate to close its minor seminary in Beit Jala and move it to Jordan. Although one reason was the violence in Beit Sahour during the current intifada, another major factor was the difficulty of getting high-school-age students back and forth safely—and without delays at checkpoints and border crossings—from their homes in Jordan to the seminary in the Palestinian territories on a regular basis.

In his letter, Sabbah pointed out that “numerous procedures have been undertaken over the past months by the seminary itself, by the official organs of the patriarchate and by the Apostolic Delegation of Jerusalem (the representative of the Holy Father). Until the present time, no satisfactory response has been given.”

Both Kieffe and Hijazen told this reporter that individuals representing the brothers and seminarians had met with the various Israeli officials in charge of the process, but they confirmed the patriarch’s statement that to date there had been no action.

“It’s a bureaucracy like any other, except that here bureaucracies tend to be even more complicated than in other places,” said Kieffe. “But it’s hard to tell if it’s just the bureaucratic wheels grinding slowly or a deliberate making life difficult.”

Numbers given for priests and religious sisters and brothers waiting for visas ranged from 15 to 70. Apart from the seminarians, Hijazen said, a minimum of 15 priests, brothers and nuns are without renewed residency permits, not counting those whose entrance visas are still in limbo. In addition to the several brothers at Bethlehem University, the religious women and men still waiting for their documents are Jordanian, Syrian and Italian.

“The Italian sisters can’t get theirs renewed because some of their documents show they have been to Gulf states,” said a priest who asked not to be named. “I don’t think this is just bureaucracy. It seems much more like a systematic way of making life for Christians and non-Israelis more difficult. And the fact that the church works with the Palestinian people is part of it, too.”

Patricia Lynn Morrison, who writes from Kansas City, MO, has done extensive investigative and on-site reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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