HOLY LAND
from issue no. 03 - 2003

The state of Israel makes “clandestine immigrants” of Catholics of Arab origin

The visa war


For ten months, with the most diverse excuses, the residence permits of about ten Catholic priests and religious have not been renewed. In a few months the seminary of Beit Jala could be closed and its seminarians expelled from the country


by Gianni Valente


The Seminary of the latin patriarchate 
of Jerusalem in Beit Jala

The Seminary of the latin patriarchate of Jerusalem in Beit Jala

Sami Hijazin had to leave Israel in a great hurry half way through last October, because of an urgent matter. He crossed the Jordan valley bridge, heading towards Amman, to go and assist his sick mother. For eleven years the young Jordanian had studied and prepared to become a Catholic priest at the Patriarchal Latin Seminary of Beit Jala, the town this side of the Jordan by now fused with the nearby Bethlehem, and was to be ordained the following June. At the time of his sudden return to his own country, his residence permit in Israel had expired, seeing that his request for its renewal, forwarded already in the May of 2002, had lain languishing for months, ignored in the offices of the Israeli Ministry of the Interior. His family problems resolved, Sami had requested a simple tourist visa from the Israeli embassy in Amman in order to re-enter the seminary and from there to continue the procedures for his residence permit so as to regularize his position. But the functionaries of the embassy told him to call back again. From postponement to postponement, from that day in October five months have passed by. In order not to lose time, Sami is taking the last exams by fax and e-mail which he sends to his professors in Beit Jala from the Latin vicariate of Amman. It might seem but a banal example of a bureaucratic “odyssey”. Were it not that, in the past ten months, something similar has happened to a growing number of priests, religious, nuns, seminarians and foreign novices who live in the Holy Land. A “visa war” carried out slyly, without official explanations, which through unjustified postponements is gradually transforming a growing portion of the group made up of Catholic ecclesiastics operating in Israel into people sans papiers.
At the beginning of March, those belonging to Catholic communities and institutions whose residence permits Israel had not renewed were already about eighty. A number destined to climb in the coming months, seeing that the stalling about the visas began in May 2002, and that in the following weeks residence visas of a year’s duration will begin to expire in bursts. And then if one examines the list of those affected, the eye is immediately struck by the fact that the strange virus of the denied visa follows singularly selective criteria: more than 90% of its “victims” are Arabs. Lebanese, Iraqis, Syrians, but in large part belonging to countries with whom Israel maintains solid diplomatic relations, such as Jordan and Egypt. From the point of view of those belonging to religious families, however, the cases of failure to renew the visa are distributed without apparent preferences. There are many Franciscans belonging to the Custodianship of the Holy Land (the Lebanese George Abou Khazen, parish priest of the church of Saint Salvador in Jerusalem, had problems which were then resolved); there are many nuns and novices of the congregations of the Rosary, of Saint Joseph and of Saint Dorothea; there are some Benedictines and also two eighty year old Lebanese Trappists who came to Israel more than sixty years ago, when the State of Israel did not yet exist, and who for the first time are assuming at their venerable age the status of “clandestine” immigrants.

Seminary at risk
Among the religious, those who found themselves outside Israel with their visa expired are now staying in some Middle-Eastern house or indeed in the “Roman” base of their congregation, while waiting for the obstacle to be removed. The failure of some member to return, however displeasing, does not unduly compromise the normal presence of the religious orders and congregations with members of heterogeneous nationalities. But at the Patriarchal Seminary of Beit Jala, which trains the clergy destined for the diocesan network of all of the Holy Land, the business of the expired visas casts alarming shadows on the future.
The jurisdiction of the Latin patriarchiate of Jerusalem also includes Jordan and Cyprus, as well as Israel and all the independent Palestinian territory. At the Patriarchal Seminary founded at Beit Jala in 1852 with the permission of the Turks who then governed the Holy Land, the group of candidates for the priesthood who came from latin parishes beyond the Jordan was always numerous. Until 1967, after the war in which Israel occupied Jerusalem and the territories of Cis-Jordan, the Jordanian seminarians had always obtained their entry and residence visas without any difficulties. Through a routine procedure which provided every year for the concession of roughly twenty new visas and forty renewals. Now, of fifty minor seminarians and twenty major ones, the majority is of Jordanian origin. Among those who are about to be ordained, sixteen are of Jordanian origin. And for all of them, if things don’t change by May, a future as “irregulars” susceptible to expulsion is in prospect. This was already about to happen to George Hattar and Raed Hijazin, clerics in the first and third years of Theology, who during the Christmas vacation were stopped by the Israeli police on the road to Nazareth and conducted to the border with Jordan. On that occasion only the fortuitous intervention of a Catholic functionary of the Israeli Ministry for Cults who recognized them, prevented their expulsion. But the growing sense of precariousness, however, is beginning to undermine the very survival of a community institution already stressed by the conflict and by the long months of curfew imposed on the zone around Bethlehem by the recent phases of Israeli occupation.“If it continues like this, we could seriously think of closing the Seminary,” admitted the rector Maroun Laham, he too a Palestinian of Jordanian nationality. He too with an expired residence visa and therefore in fact “clandestine”, as are many other Arab priests who teach in the Seminary or who are parish priests in Israel.

Complicated relations
Beit Jala is the only Catholic diocesan seminary in the Holy Land. The only one of the Latin rite in all of the Middle East. Already 258 priests have been ordained there and 11 bishops, among whom two Latin patriarchs of Jerusalem: Giacomo Beltritti and his successor, the actual titular of the Latin patriarchiate Michel Sabbah. From the windows of the austere and dignified building in stone one looks over Jerusalem. In the lecture halls and in the refectory Arabic, French and often Italian are spoken. The clergy which is formed there is destined to minister to a large part of the sixty parishes of the patriarchate.
To cause the seminary of Beit Jala to close means to create great problems for the Catholic church in the Holy Land. It means to strike at a crucial point of the whole diocesan nerve system which sustains the pastoral care of a large part of the Arab Catholics. That autochthonous Palestinian community, small and subjected to pressures of all kinds, but which enables the Catholic presence in the Holy Land to be more than just an importation, a list of religious houses and institutions opened in the land of Jesus as prestigious branches of orders and movements spread throughout the whole world, or a matter for eager western hearts come here in pursuit of their spiritual itineraries.
The apostolic nunciature in Israel has on many occasions, in the past months presented requests for clarification to the Israeli authorities about the case of the denied visas, but so far to no avail. But before the elections at the end of January the Ministry of the Interior was in the hands of an exponent of the SHAS, the extreme and xenophobic religious party: the kind who hope for a ban on immigration into Israel for all “gentiles”. And it doesn’t take too much to think that with the selective blackout on visas, the Catholic church also is paying the price of the anti-Arab feeling running through Israeli society. In the climate of emergency set off by the atrocious kamikaze attempts, someone is perhaps also trying to settle debts with the local ecclesiastical institutions, politically unpopular with the current Israeli leadership. In particular with the Latin patriarchate and the Eastern churches which inevitably share the destiny and the orientations of their own Palestinian faithful. On 17 January last, the heavy measures of control to which he was subjected by the Israeli agents at Tel Aviv airport, made the Latin patriarch, Michel Sabbah, decide to cancel for the first time a visit to Rome, even though he possesses a diplomatic passport. Meanwhile, in the West, the media campaigns aimed at laying the lethal accusation of theological anti-semitism against the Middle-Eastern churches most critical of Israeli politics, continues.
But the business of denied visas doesn’t only touch the difficult relations between Israel and the local churches. As father David Jaeger, professor of Canon Law as well as the spokesman for the Custodianship of the Holy Land, told 30Days,“we are faced with the non-fulfillment of Article 3:2 of the fundamental Agreement between the Holy See and the State of Israel which came into force on 10 March 1994. That article guarantees the right of the Church to “train, nominate and position” – the original English used the verb ‘deploy’ – “its own personnel” in its own institutions. I took part in the negotiations and I remember that that formula was specifically intended to safeguard that right”.
In the Vatican it is hoped that the case of the visas in Israel, quantitatively more consistent than the analogous complaints that complicate relations with Russia, will be resolved with the beginning of the mandate of the new government, which obtained the confidence of the Knesset on 28 February last and which sees Avraham Poraz, born in Romania in 1945 and member of the SHINUI lay party, at the head of the Ministry of the Interior. It is also expected that a certain negligence shown by the Israeli authorities during the past months in ordinary dealings with the Holy See will be remedied. Enough to think that since last November the Israeli side unilaterally suspended the sittings of the permanent bilateral commission of work between the Holy See and Israel, set up in 1994 to work out detailed norms for the individual clauses of the Fundamental Agreement. The body was on the point of dealing with the delicate question of the status of Catholic property and institutions in Israel from the tax aspect. The break-off was justified by the government crisis and the run-up to the elections which voted in the new administration. But since 1994 three general elections have taken place in Israel. And on those prior occasions the work of the commission continued without any problem.



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