JERUSALEM — Christian churches in the Holy Land are facing an unprecedented crisis that some say is jeopardizing their future, including their capacity to maintain the faith's holy sites and charitable institutions and to educate clergy.
The churches' difficulties have been building over the past three years as the Israeli government has failed to renew visas or residence permits for hundreds of religious workers, and has begun sending tax bills to charitable groups that have long had tax-exempt status, some since the Ottoman Empire. At the same time, the separation wall being built in Jerusalem and on the West Bank is slicing through religious facilities, in some cases taking land and blocking pilgrimage routes.
"All indications point to the fact that the church is slowly but surely being strangled," says an official at the Latin Patriarchate, the Roman Catholic Church's regional office in Jerusalem, which serves Israel, the Palestinian territories, Jordan, and Cyprus.
So great is the concern that Vatican diplomats have spoken out bluntly and Americans have sought US help. Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, recently sent a letter to President Bush calling this "the most difficult situation in living memory for the Church in the Holy Land."
Israeli officials have said over several months that the visa problem is a bureaucratic issue, requiring new guidelines for security purposes. But to some church officials it looks like a concerted effort to make life difficult for Christians and Christian institutions.The majority of local Christians in the Holy Land are Arabic-speaking. The Catholic church has a different perspective from Israel on the peace process, including its desire for a special status for Jerusalem and the holy sites. Others worry there could be an aim to reduce the overall Christian presence.
"This is tough, tough politics," suggests a religious observer with experience in the region, who asked not to be named.
No resolution on the visa issue has occurred despite high-level meetings over several months. Israeli officials now say it should come in a matter of weeks, after review by a special committee.
"It's a purely bureaucratic problem, and we are fully aware of the urgency," says Jonathan Peled, the Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman. "The prime minister and foreign minister have promised to engage to bring the issue to a speedy conclusion."
But with many religious workers, including longtime residents, now without legal papers and unable to travel outside Israel even in emergencies, church officials say they will only be convinced by action.
"In the Catholic world there is a growing view that Israel has deliberately framed a policy to hurt the Church," the Rev. David Jaeger, a representative of the Holy See, told the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz earlier this month.
The visa problem first arose three years ago, and seemed connected to bureaucrats of the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party. The party later headed the Interior Ministry, promoting a broad exclusion of foreigners, including Jews, says the Rev. Drew Christiansen, Middle East policy adviser to the US bishops conference. Many expected the problem to disappear when a secular party minister was appointed, he adds, but it has escalated. A three-month civil service strike last fall added to the delay.
Some observers speculate that the government is squeezing traditional churches that show public concern for the Palestinian plight in favor of Evangelicals who are avidly pro-Israel. But the crisis affects the full Christian presence, from Anglicans, Orthodox, and Lutherans to Evangelicals.
The United Christian Council in Israel, an association of 30 Evangelical groups, has written that the crisis "is so acute that the ability to continue our work is being threatened," and suggesting the current government may be seeking to limit and reduce the number of Christians in Israel.
Even pro-Israel advocates such as the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem (ICEJ) are feeling the pinch. "We are very concerned - we had to let 12 of our staff go at the end of last year," says the Rev. Malcolm Hedding, ICEJ director. He insists this is not a campaign against churches, but says Israel is trying to work out problems with illegal aliens from such places as Nigeria, Ghana, and the Philippines.
According to Mr. Peled, both security concerns and the phenomenon of illegal foreign workers have complicated the management of the visa process. "The idea is not to limit but to set a more orderly and speedy modus operandi," he says.
"It's hard to accept the argument that it's a purely bureaucratic problem," says the Rev. Robert Fortin, a Catholic official here. "Renewing a visa used to take only half a day. They even are threatening to expel a sister who is 92 years old and has lived here for more than 50 years, and another who is 82," he adds.
Apart from the holy sites, the Catholic Church runs 151 institutions here, including hospitals, schools, seminaries, and homes for the elderly and handicapped.
Reinforcing its concern is the fact that Israel has not fully implemented the treaty reached with the Vatican in 1993 that normalized relations. The Vatican agreed to an exchange of ambassadors in a Fundamental Agreement, which was to be followed by two new treaties, including one on fiscal matters. Israel has not introduced implementing legislation a decade after the treaty, Father Christiansen says, and last September, it broke off negotiations on the fiscal treaty.
Meanwhile, some charitable institutions have received huge tax bills, despite long-standing tax-exemption agreements. A few Catholic institutions have ignored the bills. The Lutheran World Federation (LWF), however, which operates a hospital on the Mount of Olives providing healthcare and vocational training in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza, went to court over the issue. The Israeli district court in Jerusalem said the government could abrogate such agreements unilaterally.
The LWF was told it was liable for back taxes up to $4 million. "Without continuation of the agreement, the LWF will be forced to substantially reduce its activities," says Dennis Frado, LWF representative at UN headquarters. The Lutherans are appealing the decision to the high court.
The taxation issue will take longer than the visas to resolve, Peled says. Acknowledging a plan to change tax-exempt status, he adds, "We are in this long negotiating process with the Holy See which will set a precedent - the ground rules and general status for every Christian institution in Israel. This could take awhile."
Meanwhile, the Greek Orthodox Church, with the largest Christian membership in the Holy Land, has faced other difficulties. The current patriarch has waited for 2-1/2 years since his election for recognition from the Israeli government.