Christian exodus from Israel? Ministry aims to solve visa crisis

Publication Date: 22/8/2023

Source: The Jerusalem Post

The chief of staff of the Population and Immigration Authority has reached out to the lawyer representing the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem (ICEJ) to inform him that a review of the visa policy that has banned permanent staff from entering Israel is underway, and an understanding will be reached soon.

Moreover, The Jerusalem Post confirmed that the issue had been brought to the highest levels of the Israeli government.

“We have been waiting on this review for over three years now without any valid explanation for the delays and drastic changes in visa policies over that time,” said David Parsons, ICEJ vice president and senior spokesperson. “We are confident we can work out a long-term resolution on our visas now that we have their attention.”

The Interior Ministry did not comment on the exchange, but instead told the Post that “The matter has been discussed in the past. The head of the Population and Immigration Authority, Eyal Sisu, is expected to reexamine the issue, and decisions will be made in accordance with the law and regulations, taking into account diplomatic considerations, Israel’s relations with religious and other organizations, and any other relevant considerations.”

Last week, Parsons turned to the media over concerns that his and other large Christian organizations were “slowly being squeezed out of existence by the Interior Ministry.”

He pointed out that over the last 18 months, the ministry had ceased granting work or clergy visas to entities like ICEJ and similar groups. Instead, their personnel were constrained to obtain volunteer visas with stringent limitations. These visas were exclusively available to individuals from prosperous nations, comprising at least 50% of Israel’s GDP. Furthermore, these visa holders were restricted to traveling alone, without dependents. Additionally, the terms of the visas mandated a departure from the country for a minimum of six months every two years.

“These organizations cannot continue to function without at least 10-15 permanent staff members,” explained lawyer Calev M. Myers. “These are very large organizations with 40 to 60 employees, most temporary or volunteers. But to build an organization, you have to have stable leadership. You cannot have people who come and go every year.”

Israel is home to a small cluster of notable Christian organizations, each boasting roughly a dozen permanent personnel. Put differently, the collective count of individuals necessitating clergy or other more permanent visas likely falls below 100. However, despite this relatively modest figure, Parsons underscored that issuing fresh visas and extending existing ones has continually been met with refusals.

Other prominent Christian organizations include Bridges for Peace and Christians United for Israel, both of which have similar missions to ICEJ.

The Post learned that the ministry is still recommending that the staff members receive B4 volunteer visas but will waive restrictions like the requirement to spend six months abroad between visa periods, perhaps lowering the required days to only 30. However, when the Post asked Myers whether this kind of agreement would be acceptable, he said the answer was no.

The organizations are looking for a permanent solution and, until it is found, to maintain the status quo as it was handled under previous governments.

Myers said the ministry told him that they are considering creating a new visa category for Christian workers like ICEJ’s. However, given the government’s preoccupation with other issues, he does not believe a solution will be found readily.

Who is the ICEJ?
The ICEJ has been operating in Israel since 1980 and is registered as an Israeli NGO. ICEJ’s mandate is to “encourage Christians worldwide to stand with Israel and the Jewish people in solidarity and friendship, and particularly to support the 3,000-year-old Jewish claim and connection to Jerusalem,” Parsons said.

ICEJ has branches in 90 countries and activities in 170. Parsons said it had assisted more than 180,000 Jews in making aliyah and provided more than 250 bomb shelters to Israelis living on the borders.

The organization is known for its annual Feast of Tabernacles celebration, which has drawn thousands of Christian pilgrims to the country each year to march in the streets to support Israel and the Jewish people. In the past, Christian Arabs have come from enemy countries to participate in the celebration. At its peak, the feast hosted as many as 6,000 people.

Some Jews are skeptical of Christian support for Israel, accusing Christians of offering their love in an effort to convert them or more quickly bring about redemption. However, the ICEJ and other organizations insist that they do not carry out missionary activities.

Until now, the ICEJ has cooperated readily with the Interior Ministry and has secured clergy and work visas for relevant staff. In addition, the organization is recognized as a Christian organization, and its team qualifies as clergy according to the criteria.

The criteria includes submitting an ordination certificate from a Christian institution and receiving a recommendation from Cesare Marijeh, the head of the Department of Christian Communities for the Interior Ministry, to enter the country. Myers said that all of the applications he is aware of have met this criteria.

“There is no reason to shift the status quo,” Myers said.

Parsons said he met with Foreign Minister Eli Cohen four months ago, and he promised to intervene. However, nothing changed. Last week, the organization received another rejection, prompting him to turn to the media.

Parsons admitted that they were “shocked by the worsening situation,” especially given the Christian Evangelicals’ close ties with the previous Netanyahu governments and the prime minister himself.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu once called Evangelicals “Israel’s best friends.” He also credited them for supporting the decision of former US president Donald Trump to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

“We are confident we can work this out with the Interior Ministry,” Parsons said. “It is just regrettable that we had to go the media to get their attention.”

Link: https://www.jpost.com/christianworld/article-755788?dicbo=v2-50xpZQz

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