Problem for Catholic religious personnel in Israel, The Ad-hoc Committee Jerusalem

H.E. Archbishop Pietro Sambi
Apostolic Delegate
Shmuel Ben Adaya Street
P.O. Box 19199
91191 Jerusalem

Your Excellency,

I am enclosing herewith the Report of the Ad Hoc Committee charged with
examining the problem of Catholic religious personnel whose visas have been
requested from the Ministry of the Interior of Israel but have not yet been

The Committee recommends that the report be brought to the immediate
attention not only of the proper officials in the Israeli Government but
also of the Holy See, the various episcopal conferences around the world,
and the international press.  It further recommends that remedy be sought
through the Israeli Courts, as high as the High Court of Justice if need be,
if redress is not obtained through diplomatic channels.

Hoping that the report will be found useful, I wish to thank you in the name
of the Committee for the kind attention you will give this matter.  Please
accept my very best wishes.

Sincerely yours,
Rev. Robert J. Fortin, A.A.
For the Committee

cc: H.B. Patriarch Michel Sabbah

Catholic Ad-hoc Committee

Denial of Freedom of Religion
As guaranteed by the Fundamental Agreement
Between the Holy See and the State of Israel

Part I

Visas requested by Catholic Religious Personnel
But not yet granted by the Israeli Government

March 22, 2003


Recalling its earlier commitments to the principle of Freedom of Religion,
the State of Israel recommitted itself to this principle in the Fundamental
Agreement Between the Holy See and the State of Israel signed on December
30, 1993:

"The State of Israel, recalling its Declaration of Independence, affirms its
continuing commitment to uphold and observe the human right to freedom of
religion and conscience, as set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human
Rights and in other international instruments to which it is a party."
(Article 1)

Freedom of Religion would be a "phantom freedom" if the State did not allow
the Church to engage in its proper activity.  For that reason, the Agreement
went on to guarantee the Catholic Church the right to carry out its own
functions, inter alia, the right to "train, appoint and deploy its own

"The State of Israel recognizes the right of the Catholic Church to carry
out its religious, moral, educational and charitable functions, and to have
its own institutions, and to train, appoint and deploy its own personnel in
the said institutions or for the said functions to these ends.  The Church
recognizes the right of the State to carry out its functions, such as
promoting and protecting the welfare and the safety of the people.  Both the
State and the Church recognize the need for dialogue and cooperation in such
matters as by their nature call for it." (Art. 3, ? 2)

The Agreement also guarantees that the Church will have freedom of worship,
the right to establish, maintain and direct schools of study at all levels,
and the right to carry out its charitable functions:

"The State of Israel agrees with the Holy See on the continuing guarantee of
the freedom of Catholic worship." (Art. 4, ? 4)

"The Holy See and the State of Israel jointly reaffirm the right of the
Catholic Church to establish, maintain and direct schools and institutes of
study at all levels; this right being exercised in harmony with the rights
of the State in the field of education." (Art. 6)

"The Holy See and the State of Israel jointly reaffirm the right of the
Catholic Church to carry out its charitable functions through its health
care and social welfare institutions; this right being exercised in harmony
with the rights of the State in this field." (Art. 9)

The State of Israel gave further indication of its commitment to Freedom of
Religion when it gave legal personality to the various churches, institutes
of Consecrated Life and other official entities of the Catholic Church in
the Legal Personality Agreement signed on November 10, 1997.

However, for nearly two years, Israel's Ministry of the Interior has refused
to grant entry visas and renewals of residence permits to a large number of
Catholic priests, nuns, seminarians, and volunteers.

The present report will demonstrate that this practice has become so
extensive and affects so many Church institutions, including key areas such
as its major seminary, that the Israeli government is now in material breach
of the principle of Freedom of Religion guaranteed by its Declaration of
Independence, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the Fundamental

Part I of the present report examines first of all the applications
themselves, noting their number, the dates on which they were submitted to
the Ministry, and the problems encountered by the applicants.  It then draws
attention to the Churches, religious orders and Church institutions affected
by the government policies.  Finally, it states some of the consequences of
the government's policies on the Catholic Church in the Holy Land.

Part II provides a partial listing of applicants whose requests have not yet
been granted.

I. Applications for entry visas and residence permits

A. 86 (108) visa applications pending

A recent survey conducted among the different Catholic Churches present in
the Holy Land, including the religious congregations of men and women and
the various institutions that come under their jurisdiction, reveals 86
applications for entry visas and residence permits for religious personnel
that have been requested but have not yet been granted (see Part II for a
partial list of applicants, as of the date of this report).  They include 36
men and 50 women from 13 countries.  The number of such applications is
therefore considerable and, as explained below, is having serious effects on
the Catholic Church in Israel and the Palestinian Territories.

The figures are nevertheless partial and incomplete because they do not

1. The names of religious personnel or volunteers who were denied an entry
visa and who therefore were never allowed to enter the country;
2. The names of those who had been living in Israel for several years and
who were either obliged to leave the country or who, having left for
whatever personal reasons, were not allowed to return;
3. The names of those who have been living in Israel for several years and
whose requests were eventually granted, though only after a long delay and
multiple visits to the Ministry of the Interior.
4. The names of 22 Jordanian seminarians in Beit Jala whose residence visas
will expire between May 13 and September 1, 2003 and will apparently not be
renewed, if the government's current policy does not change in the meantime.
  This will increase the total number of problematic visas from 86 to 108.

B. Dates on which applications were made

The pending requests that have not yet been granted were submitted over a
period of time extending from March 2001 to date, 56 of them since October
2002, including 15 in December 2002.  See Appendix 1 (page 10) for details.

C. Problems encountered by applicants

1. Discrimination based on country of origin

The religious personnel whose cases are pending come from 13 different

* 70 from neighboring Arab countries: Jordan (29), Lebanon  (23), Syria (9),
Iraq (6), and Egypt (3), making for 81% of the total.  That figure rises to
82.5% when a French citizen born in Algeria but holding a French passport is
added to the list.  It rises to 85% when the 22 Jordanian seminarians are
also added.
* 4 from India and 2 from the Philippines, or 7%.
* 5 from African countries: Rwanda (3), Mali (1), Burkina Faso (1), or 6%.
* 3 from Eastern Europe: Poland (2), Slovakia (1), or 3%
* 1 from Western Europe (France), or 1.5%

It should be noted that religious personnel coming from Third World
countries generally encounter many obstacles and delays in obtaining visas.

In the present political context, the Church in the Holy Land understands
perfectly well that the State of Israel must take all of the security
measures it deems necessary to protect its own safety and that of its
citizens.   However, it finds unjustified the indiscriminate application of
these measures to the religious domain:

* All of the Catholic religious congregations and institutions in the Holy
Land are not only publicly known, their name and address appearing in the
Annuaire de l'Eglise Catholique en Terre Sainte, the contents of which are
known to the Ministry, but they have also been given legal personality by
the State of Israel in the Legal Personality Agreement mentioned above in
the Introduction.
* The Catholic religious personnel do not come to the country for unknown
purposes and dangerous activities but exclusively "for religious, moral,
educational and charitable functions" (cf. Fundamental Agreement).
* The local religious superior, who presents the application for an
entry-visa or a residence permit, assumes complete responsibility before the
Israeli authorities for the conduct of the persons in question.
* The Catholic religious personnel from neighboring Arab countries receive
from the Diplomatic Representation of the Holy See a Laissez-passer, but
only after having accurately verified that for each case the motive for
entry or residence is exclusively for "religious, moral, educational and
charitable functions."

However, the recommendations of the Diplomatic Representation of the Holy
See and of the religious superiors are often ignored, thus putting in
question the reliability of Church officials and disregarding the legal
personality of the institutions to which the personnel are affiliated.

2. Deprivation of rights

Over the years, many of the older religious have regularly contributed to
"Bituah leumi."  When they now find themselves without a visa, they cease to
have the right to receive their pension checks and to be entitled to the
government's health insurance program.  From what will they live?

Some of the elderly religious who are now being harassed have lived in the
country all of their lives.  It is unconscionable that they should suddenly
find themselves without a visa.

3. Confusion between foreign workers and Church personnel

In its effort to exclude and/or deport foreign workers in response to a
perceived "explosion" of foreign workers entering the country (25,000 were
deported in the last 6 months), the Interior Ministry has not made any
distinction between Christians seeking to study and serve in the Holy Land
and the foreign workers it is attempting to keep out.  In so doing, it has
in fact infringed upon the religious freedom of Catholics, denying the
Church the rights guaranteed by the Fundamental Agreement "to carry out its
religious, moral, educational and charitable functions, and to have its own
institutions, and to train, appoint and deploy its own personnel in the said
It should be noted that those who serve and study in Catholic institutions
of whatever kind do not in fact take jobs away from Israelis.

4. Contradictory policies followed by different Ministries of the Government

Except for the few cases that were submitted to Israeli embassies in foreign
countries, the vast majority of the requests was submitted in Jerusalem and
followed standard procedures. They were submitted first to the Ministry of
Religious Affairs, the ministry most knowledgeable about the Catholic
Church, where they were authenticated as coming from a known and recognized
Catholic institution, and where they received a favorable recommendation.
They were then forwarded to the Ministry of the Interior, which ignored the
recommendation of the Ministry of Religious Affairs, choosing to either deny
or indefinitely delay granting the request.  Consequently, the policies and
criteria of the two ministries of the same government were clearly in
contradiction one with the other.

5. Applicants are often given the runaround

Applicants are routinely given evasive excuses and subjected to a series of
delaying actions in response to their repeated requests.  Typically, they
are given no reasons but are told to come back in three weeks or a month for
an answer.  When they return three weeks or a month later, they are again
told to come back in three weeks or a month, and so on, month after month
after month.  In the process, they lose many days standing in line at the
Ministry of the Interior and are left in legal limbo.  In the long run, the
procedures are humiliating.

When current temporary residence permits are coming to expiration,
applicants are regularly told to apply for renewal not more than one month
before the expiration date.  Yet, the renewal process, when successful,
often takes many months, leaving applicants unwillingly in an illegal
situation for a long period of time.

Some religious congregations run into enormous problems when requesting
eight-day visas for Arab sisters coming to attend regional meetings of the
order.  When they ask one month ahead of time, they wait and wait.  If and
when the visas are eventually granted, they arrive too late for the meeting.
  When the Order asks two months ahead of time, the visas arrive too early
and expire before the meeting takes place.  When the Ministry mails the
visas, they never arrive on time.

6. Changing of visa category suddenly prohibited

For years, it was allowed to change from one visa category to another, e.g.,
from A-2 (student) or B-2 (tourist) to A-3 (clergy).  In fact, application
form # 15 was entitled "Application for the Extension of Permit of Residence
/ Change of Visa Category."  Then, suddenly and without warning or
explanation, it became very difficult, if not impossible, to change
category.  Applicants were told that if they wanted to change category, they
had to return to their country of origin and there apply for a new visa at
the Israeli Embassy. As applied to church personnel, the new policy is

* In the case of seminarians coming from whatever country to study for the
priesthood in one of the local dioceses or religious congregations, they
first receive an A-2 (student) visa during their years of theology.  It is
unreasonable to oblige them to return to their country of origin to obtain
an A-3 visa (clergy/religious) after ordination or definitive incorporation
into the religious order as they pass from student to ordained priest or
vowed religious.

* In the case of monasteries of contemplative men and women, prospective
candidates often come for initial interviews and for a trial period.  At
first, they do not know if they will stay, so they request a B-2 tourist
visa.  If they decide to prolong their period of observation or to request
entrance into the order's formal training program (novitiate), they are now
obliged to return to their country of origin in order to obtain an A-2 or an
A-3 visa. The requirement is unreasonable, all the more so if they come from
a far-distant country.

* In the case of students who come to attend an educational institution of
higher learning in view of a short-term course for which a B-2 tourist visa
is sufficient, but who then decide to opt for more formal long-term
programs, there is no reason why they should be obliged to return to their
country of origin to change from B-2 to A-2.

The present ruling forbidding the change of visa category is unreasonable as
applied to church personnel.

7. Substitution of a tourist B-2 visa for a requested clergy A-3 visa

On 15.01.03, one member of a religious institute, after receiving a letter
from her religious superior and the recommendation of the Ministry of
Religious Affairs, requested a religious A-3 visa for one year.  At the
office of the Ministry of the Interior and without any explanation, she was
asked to change her application despite her written and oral explanation
that she had come to Jerusalem for religious purposes.  The Ministry refused
her application and gave her a tourist B-2 visa for 6 months rather than the
religious A-3 visa she had requested for one year.

8. Permanent residents: A-5 visas

An Israeli regulation allows holders of A-3 visas who have been in the
country for 15 years or more to apply for A-5 temporary resident visas,
which give them a few more rights, including the right to work.  Recently,
the Interior Ministry has stopped granting such visas.

9. Volunteers: B-1 visas

Many Catholic institutions, especially hospitals and charitable
organizations but also a few religious orders, rely on foreign volunteers to
help them in their endeavors.  In exchange for services, the volunteers
receive lodging and small stipends as pocket money but do not receive
salaries.  This allows the institutions to retain their Christian character
and to keep expenses down.  In recent times, the Interior Ministry has
ceased to grant B-1 visas to volunteers, erroneously assimilating them to
foreign workers and thereby causing additional staffing and financial
difficulties for the institutions involved.

In a recent case, an elderly volunteer who has been in the country since
August 2000 at the service of a cloistered monastery of nuns was given on
March 17 a tourist B-2 visa valid for only one month and was told that he
had to leave the country at the end of that period.  The monastery is being
deprived of a reliable and trustworthy helper who speaks the language of the
sisters and who is certainly not taking the job of any local job seeker.

10. Arbitrariness and rudeness - absence of standard procedural norms

The employees at the Ministry do not all apply standard objective norms but
are often given to arbitrariness, each one seemingly having the right to
invent his/her own rules according to the mood of the day.  At times,
treatment is rude and arrogant, leaving the impression that Catholic
religious personnel are unwelcome in the country and reinforcing the idea
commonly held, rightly or wrongly, that ideological reasons lie behind the
denials and delays.  There is therefore an urgent need for standard
procedural norms followed by all Ministry employees and clearly brought to
the attention of all Church institutions so that everyone knows what to

11. Unsatisfactory reasons given for the refusals and delays

Various explanations have been put forward in the press and elsewhere
offering excuses for these problems, but none are satisfactory.  It has been
alleged that the policies were those of the Shas Party, not those of the
government, and that they were not specifically directed against Christians
since non-Christians and even non-Orthodox Jews also encountered them.  The
argument is irrelevant because ministries are branches of a single
government, represent that government in the area of their competence, and,
by definition, carry out its policies.

Moreover, the signatory to the Fundamental Agreement with the Catholic
Church was the Israeli Government as such, not any specific political party.
  Unless mutually agreed upon, the present Agreement binds all governments
of whatever orientation.  Also, Israel is known the world over for its
ability to operate efficiently when it so desires and when its own interests
are at stake.

II. Churches and religious orders affected by government policies
(See Appendix 2 [page 11] for detailed listing)

Three Catholic Churches are affected by present government policies: the
Latin Church, the Greek-Melkite Church, and the Maronite Church:

* In the Latin Church: 13 members of the diocesan clergy (6 priests and 7
seminarians), and 63 members of 18 religious orders: 22 men and 41 women.

* In the Greek Melkite and Maronite Churches: 10 members of 2 religious
orders, one from each Church.

By and large and merely in terms of numbers, the most seriously affected are
the Franciscan Custody (15 members), the Latin Patriarchate (13 members) and
the Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (13 members).
However, the statistics do not tell the whole story because, in terms of
percentages of total membership, many of the smaller religious orders are
hurt just as badly as the larger ones.  Also, as will be seen below, the
situation of the patriarchal seminary in Beit Jala is particularly critical
and urgent, all the more so that the visas of 22 more seminarians will soon
be coming to expiration and will bring the seminary's total up to 29.

III. Types of work affected by government policies
(See Appendix 3 [page 12] for detailed listing)

The types of work in which one or more visa applicants is/are affiliated are
extremely varied.  In fact, they involve almost the entire gamut of the
Church's activity in the Holy Land.  It follows that the Church's activity
is very seriously impacted by the Government's current policies.  The
affected areas include:

General diocesan administration of the Latin Patriarchate
Top level administration of religious orders (major superiors)
Educational institutions at all levels (teachers and students)
Seminaries and religious training (seminarians, novices, postulants)
Retreat Centers and continuing education of religious personnel
Parishes (pastors and assistant pastors)
Student residences and guesthouses
Hospitals (staff)
Monasteries of contemplatives religious men & women
Retirement homes for the aged
Work with the poor and disadvantaged

IV. Consequences of the government policies on the Catholic Church

Contrary to the spirit of mutual respect and cooperation mentioned in the
Fundamental Agreement (Art. 3, ? 2), and contrary to the provisions of
Article 10, ? 2 (a) and (d) of this same Agreement regarding unsettled and
disputed questions, the State of Israel has unilaterally, without
consultation and discussion, adopted far-reaching policies affecting the
implementation of the Agreement regarding Church personnel.  Incompatible
with it, the present policies:

1. Curtail the right of the Church to train, appoint and deploy its own
personnel in its institutions.  Consequently, critical aspects of the life
of the Church are being hampered, from the upper-most levels of Church
administration, to the daily operations of a wide variety of its

2. Infringe upon the right of the Church to establish, maintain and direct
schools and institutions of study at all levels from kindergartens to
schools of theology and advanced graduate studies.

3. Impinge upon the life of monasteries and religious communities by making
it difficult for Christians from many foreign countries around the world to
join their ranks.

4. Make difficult the entry into the country of students from many other
countries who wish to come to the Holy Land for spiritual renewal and
biblical studies.  Because Christianity was born in this land, Christians
from all countries must be able to enter in order to study the Bible in the
land where the biblical events too place.

5. Bar the training of members of several religious communities who come
from surrounding countries, including members of the Franciscan Custody, the
guardians of the most important Christian Holy Sites.  The Custody operates
23 parishes with numerous churches and chapels in the Middle East: 9 in
Israel and the West Bank, 4 in Egypt, 8 in Syria, and 2 in Lebanon.  Its
headquarters and training center are located in Jerusalem.  The Custody tops
the list of institutions affected by the Government's policies, with 15 visa
applications pending, 11 of them for young seminarians studying theology.

6. Jeopardize the very existence of the Latin Patriarchate's major seminary
in Beit Jala, its main institution for training future priests, whose future
hangs in the balance because of the government's visa policies.  The
situation is most critical and urgent.

Two-thirds of the Latin Patriarchate's seminarians come from Jordan, which
is an integral part of the diocese.  The Israeli government is not renewing
the visas of these seminarians:  7 cases are presently pending, one request
going back to March 3, 2001 and two others to May 30 and June 30, 2002.  The
visas of 22 other seminarians will expire between May 13 and September 1,
2003.  Since, under the present circumstances, it would take 5 to 6 months
to renew such visas, i.e., if indeed they were granted, the seminary will
have to close its doors in May if there is no change in government policy
before then.

Also, the request to renew the visa of the rector of the seminary, which was
submitted on September 1, 2002, has not yet been granted.  Preventing
seminarians from pursuing their studies to the priesthood and preventing the
seminary rector from performing his duties are extremely serious impediments
to the normal functioning of one of the Patriarchate's principal

7. Impede the conduct of Christian worship in certain areas by denying
pastors and assistant-pastors the right to minister to the flock.  The Latin
Patriarchate operates 54 parishes: 21 in Israel and the West Bank, 1 in
Gaza, 32 in Jordan, and 1 in Cyprus.  The denial of visas to 5 other priests
of the diocese (2 pastors and 3 assistant pastors in addition to the
seminary rector mentioned above) curtails the pastoral care of Catholics in
Israel and the West Bank.  To prohibit the priests from ministering to the
faithful constitutes a grave infringement of Freedom of Religion.


In view of the foregoing, it may therefore be concluded that the Israeli
government, by its extensive restrictions on entry visas and temporary
residence permits is currently in material breach of the principle of
Freedom of Religion, as guaranteed by its own Declaration of Independence,
the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the Fundamental Agreement
Between the Holy See and the State of Israel.

Respectfully submitted,
The Ad-hoc Committee

March 22, 2003