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Israel Ups Obstacles for Priests Seeking Visas
By: Jesús Colina of The Holy Land Ecumenical Foundation
Several leaders of the Catholic Church in the Holy Land are criticizing new obstacles the Israeli government is enacting for religious visas.
Archbishop Antonio Franco, apostolic nuncio in Israel, and Franciscan Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, custos of the Holy Land, confirmed that the difficulties are being posed by the Ministry of the Interior since it came under the control of Eli Yishai, leader of the Shas party.
"There are difficulties that we will try to overcome," Archbishop Franco, also apostolic delegate for Jerusalem and Palestine, told the Italian bishops' SIR news agency.
"If before, visas -- including for Europeans -- lasted for two years, now they are only valid for a year," explained Archbishop Franco, stating that these restrictions could cause serious problems in the development of the Church's ordinary pastoral work.
In the past, there was a freezing of visas, when the Ministry of the Interior was also led, as it is now, by the Shas party.
"This is a statement of fact," the nuncio said. "Now we must ask ourselves why there are these restrictions and what can be done to return to the previous policy, which was more open."
The problem arises as negotiations proceed for the Holy See-Israeli bilateral commission working on implementation of the Fundamental Agreement, signed in 1993, which allowed diplomatic relations to be established.
The commission's most recent meeting was Oct. 29; a plenary meeting was scheduled for Dec. 10 in the Vatican.
Archbishop Franco clarified that "the present negotiation between Israel and the Holy See on the Fundamental Agreement does not affect religious visas. This is a matter that we must see how to overcome, but up to today we don't see anything."
"The atmosphere is one of uphill work," he lamented.
Father Pizzaballa also confirmed that "there are problems and they are objective; they go back before Shas in the ministry, but with Shas they have become more evident."
"This is an old problem and it has been talked about for a long time," he added. "For more than a year the duration of visas has gone from two years to one. It is difficult to speak about this situation, as some visas are granted but others remain on the waiting list. There is some confusion: We don't know if it depends on a policy of the ministry or on the bureaucracy of some officials. Perhaps this is an intended ambiguity."
The fact is that "it is very difficult for the Churches to plan their work if it is not known with certainty if the religious or priests can come," explained the Franciscan superior.
In the case of the Custody, he said, "This year we have received visas for religious from Arab countries but not from Africa. Two brothers of Congo have not received a visa. In the past, the opposite happened. Hence, we live in uncertainty. The bureaucracy has become more complicated."
Franciscan Father David Jaeger, expert in Church-state relations in Israel, told AsiaNews that "the State of Israel can, in good faith, reject permission to enter for individuals who might endanger public safety; but, on the other hand, the state cannot wrest from the Church her judgment on the personnel she needs to 'deploy' in Israel for her institutions and objectives, wherever they come from."
As a jurist, Father Jaeger said that he "believes that the solution for all these problems lies, precisely, in the Fundamental Agreement of 1993."
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