Israel rejects prominent Evangelical Zionist group’s clergy visas, threatening future operations

Prime Minister and Likud party leader Benjamin Netanyahu smiles as he enters an election night event for the Likud party on November 1, 2022, in Jerusalem, Israel. | Amir Levy/Getty Images

Israel's Interior Ministry has reportedly stopped issuing visas to prominent Evangelical Zionist organizations, including the influential International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem, threatening the future operations of these groups in the country.

"We are slowly being squeezed out of existence by the Interior Ministry," David Parsons, vice president and senior spokesperson of the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

ICEJ, an organization active in Israel since 1980 with branches in over 90 countries, has played a significant role in assisting Jews to immigrate to Israel. The group has provided more than 250 bomb shelters, cared for hundreds of Holocaust survivors and invested $25 million a year in various humanitarian projects in the country, according to Parsons.

In Israel, Evangelical organizations mainly focus on charity work, including promoting immigration and providing assistance to Holocaust survivors, Haaretz noted, adding that much of their efforts are directed at strengthening Israel's national security, with many believing that the return of Jews to Israel is a precursor to the second coming of Jesus.

Dr. Juergen Buehler, president of the Christian Embassy, told All Israel News that his team hasn't been told why the Interior Ministry has made this policy change towards ICEJ and other Evangelical groups. 

"The situation we face at the moment with the Ministry of Interior is unprecedented," Buehler said. "It has made us unable to operate effectively in our mission to stand and support the State of Israel."

"In particular our television and media department is affected by the new visa policy which is even more difficult to understand. This is the main arm of the Christian Embassy for 'hasbara' [a Hebrew expression meaning public relations], telling good news about Israel and fighting anti-Semitism," Buehler added.

"So, we are clueless and disappointed in this new change of policy in the Ministry of Interior and, of course, we hope this will be reversed to the previous mode of operation as soon as possible."

According to Parsons, the change in policy came without warning.

The ministry stopped issuing work and clergy visas to ICEJ's international staffers during the global pandemic, and since the formation of Israel's new government, has ceased issuing clergy visas altogether. ICEJ was notified a few weeks ago that its requests for clergy visas were rejected as the organization does not qualify as a religious institution, despite being registered as a "Christian association."

"This denial comes despite the fact that we are in both name and nature a Christian organization," Parsons said, adding that the only option remaining was to request volunteer visas, which are now subject to severe restrictions, limiting potential volunteers to single people from well-to-do countries.

According to the immigration law firm Kan-Tor & Acco, A-3 religious visas have been typically granted to "non-Israeli nationals who intend to serve in an acknowledged religious establishment in Israel and permit global religious figures to carry out their religious duties."

The A-3 visa is valid for a year and requires annual renewal.

"These organizations, among them, some of Kan-Tor & Acco clients, are functioning in Israel for years and were not been provided a reason for this decision," an update from the law firm reads. "It is not yet clear if this is a policy alteration that began with the establishment of the current Israeli administration. The Population and Immigration Authority noted that this matter has previously been discussed and will soon be reviewed by its director-general."

Calev Myers, an attorney representing ICEJ, told Haaretz the organization plans to appeal the decision. If the appeals are denied, he warned that they would take the case to court.

Other Evangelical organizations have also faced difficulties in obtaining clergy visas.

The Baptist Convention of Israel and Christian Friends of Israel are among those who have encountered problems in recent months.

The Population and Immigration Authority at the Interior Ministry told Haaretz that the new head of the Population and Immigration Authority Eyal Sisu is expected to reevaluate the issue.

The sudden crackdown has left Evangelical organizations and advocates who have had good relations with Israel's right-wing governments confused. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has often touted the importance of strong relationships with the international Evangelical community. Evangelicals' support played a role in former President Donald Trump's decision to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.

Joel C. Rosenburg, an American-Israeli Evangelical activist and author, recently wrote that it's unclear if Interior Minister Moshe Arbel, an ultra-Orthodox rabbi and Knesset member who is part of the religious Shas political party, was responsible for this decision. 

"It may very well be happening at lower levels and the Minister is not aware of either the problem or the potential fallout of blatantly discriminating against the Christian Zionist friends and allies of Israel," Rosenburg stated. 

"Please also pray Prime Minister Netanyahu will direct Interior Minister Arbel to fix the problem without delay. In March, Netanyahu decisively intervened to stop legislation in the Knesset that would have trampled the religious freedom of Christians."

The Christian population in Israel has grown in recent years but still comprises about 2% of the Israeli population. 

A report released by the Central Bureau of Statistics last December found that 75.8% of Christians in Israel are Arab Christians, accounting for 6.9% of the Arab population in Israel.

Lawmakers from Israel's United Torah Judaism party earlier proposed a bill that would criminalize Christian evangelism. In March, Netanyahu said his government would not pass the bill.

Israel already has legal measures to curb Christians from evangelizing to minors in the nation's Jewish majority and jail time for anyone who offers financial incentives for Jews to convert to Christianity.

Latin Patriarch Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the head of the Roman Catholic Church in the Holy Land, has attributed a recent increase in attacks in the Christian quarter to radical Jewish extremists.

He claimed these extremists feel empowered and "protected" under Netanyahu's government, which he describes as Israel's most conservative in recent history.

Pizzaballa reported a concerning rise in harassment of clergy and damage to religious properties, stating that the current cultural and political atmosphere seems to justify or tolerate actions against Christians.

Additionally, during Easter Holy week, the decision by Israeli authorities to reduce the allowed number of people in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem from 10,000 to 1,800, citing safety and fire concerns, had left thousands of Christians dismayed.

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