An Easter story in Jerusalem: Israel accused of discriminating against Catholic priests

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As it has on the eve of every Easter for the best part of nine centuries, a procession of clergy wound its way yesterday afternoon behind a tall silver cross through the alleys of Jerusalem's Old City from the Latin Patriarchate for the three-hour Holy Thursday mass at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

The scene could hardly have been more peaceful as the priests, led by a traditional detachment of guards in pantaloons of the Ottoman era, arrived for the mass close to Christ's tomb. But the mass, of particular importance in the ancient diocese's calendar because it is the one at which its priests traditionally renew their vows, took place this year against the background of simmering discontent within the Church over widespread delays in the granting of more than 100 visas by Israel to Roman Catholic clergy.

Michel Sabbah, the Latin Patriarch, head of a diocese which covers Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories, and the first Palestinian to hold the post since it was established in 1099, warned last Monday that the delays were an issue which "concerns the survival of the churches here". He added that they threatened "complete paralysis for the church which means it is an existential question".

Senior Catholics in Rome and Jerusalem said yesterday the delays breached an agreement between the Vatican and Israel in 1993 guaranteeing the rights and freedoms for the Church in the holy land.

The hold-ups, which have left dozens of priests without legal status in Israel and the occupied territories, mostly apply to clergy already in the country. But they have also prevented transfers within the diocese between Jordan and Israel as well as causing hold ups and detentions at checkpoints - of priests and at least one nun - attempting to travel between the West Bank and Gaza to Israel and vice versa.

The majority of the diocese's 400,000-strong congregation are Christian Palestinians. In Rome yesterday, Fr David Jaeger, the official spokesman for the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land, said the fundamental agreement in 1993 had not yet been enshrined into Israeli law and that in August last year Israel had pulled out of follow-up negotiations designed to reach a detailed agreement on taxation and property rights for the Roman Catholic Church in Israel. He said: "This is a treaty obligation. In the '93 treaty is assumed a solemn treaty obligations to negotiate precisely such an agreement. There is no way to explain non compliance in such an obligation."

Fr Jaeger added that in 1994, the parties had already foreseen a further agreement on the detailed arrangements on the entry and sojourn in Israel of international church personnel. The further agreement on visas and residence permits has not happened, and over the past two years, there has been an increasing number of cases in which international church personnel are not having residence permits routinely renewed.

He said: "It is without precedent in international relations to walk out on a treaty obligation ... This is not just a legal matter: the fundamental agreement was signed in the context of a renewed relationship between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people and it was the Israeli delegation that insisted on this being ... the context."

He also suggested that the tax exemption which the Vatican enjoys by virtue of treaties and UN resolutions in the US and Britain only have de facto status in Israel. He said that bills of municipal rates had accumulated which if ever called in by Israel, "we would be wiped out".

The Patriarchate said that of 138 people waiting for visas, 54 are from Western and Asian countries, while 84 are from Arab countries, including Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Iraq and the Palestinian Authority. The Interior Minister, Avraham Poraz, has given instructions to speed up the process but acknowledges that some Arab visa applicants are receiving particular scrutiny. Tova Ellinson, an Interior Ministry spokeswoman, said: "The policy of the ministry is not to cause delays but to give the best treatment possible." The Foreign Ministry also said that Sylvan Shalom was seeking a speedy resolution to the problem "which is technical and bureaucratic in nature".

Fr Shawki Baterian, Chancellor of the Latin Patriarchate, said yesterday in Jerusalem that the delays were damaging the pastoral work of the diocese by restricting travel by the clergy. He said that he knew of at least one priest who had been prevented from reaching the Holy Sepulchre mass yesterday because he did not have a visa.

"We understand the need of Israel to carry out security checks but this is causing embarrassment to priests who are without visas and goes against the agreement of Israel to the freedom of clergy in the Holy Land." He added that Mr Poraz had said he would expedite the granting of visas "but so far this has not been implemented".

Brother Myron Collins, one of the De La Salle Brothers, an order based in Bethlehem, who is American, said yesterday that a group of the brothers who had been waiting for their visas to be renewed since applying last November, had all received their new visas last week - except for one, Brother Jean Manuel who is a Palestinian. He said: "My personal opinion is that Israel is doing this because it wants to punish the Palestinians and make them go away."

Brother Myron said another brother who had been waiting for a visa, Brother Cyril Litecky, had been stopped at a checkpoint while travelling to Jerusalem. "He stopped going after that because he was frightened he wouldn't be able to get back." He said it was "not an impossibility" the other brothers, Americans and Britons, had received visas because of the impending talks with President George Bush next week by the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon.

The hold-ups have even drawn accusations from one priest, Father Robert Fortin - denied by the government - that they flow from a desire to reinforce the Jewish character of the state by reducing the number of Christians.