For more than a year, I have repeatedly visited the office of the Christian Affairs Department at the Israeli Ministry of Religious Affairs in Jerusalem to seek a clergy visa for Rev. Jeff Hoover. Jeff is a U.S. citizen from Raleigh, North Carolina. Our international congregation in East Jerusalem called Rev. Hoover to come to Jerusalem to serve as an assistant pastor, since I am approaching retirement.
On December 1, 2011, I visited the Christian Affairs Department and spoke with the office’s director to see if there was progress on Rev. Hoover's application. The official in charge told me openly that his office can't give a recommendation for a clergy visa for Rev. Hoover because, he stated, "the State of Israel does not recognize the Baptist Church." The statement surprised me, but not because our attempts to get Rev. Hoover a visa failed. We had many similar setbacks in the past, but this was the first time a lack of recognition was cited as the reason. In the past, the officials did not give us a reason for denying visas, and after a few months of trying, we just gave up. “Not recognized” means that no Evangelical church in Israel is officially recognized because they have not acquired the privilege of "Status Quo." This privilege was granted during the Ottoman period to historic denominations, and more recently, to the Anglican and the Lutheran churches.
Israel’s Ministry of Religious Affairs may have the right to deny a Christian clergyperson a visa to enter Israel. But why should it take a year and a half before the applicant learns that his or her church is not recognized? In June, while in Israel, Rev. Hoover was told that if he left Israel, the officials would process his visa application. He returned to the U.S. and after six months, he was told that his application papers which he first submitted in 2010 were lost. He submitted new forms, but that didn't help. In the last eight months, Rev. Hoover and I both--he from the US and I from Jerusalem--made repeated contacts with officials of the Ministry of Religious Affairs to ask about the status of his visa. All of our efforts came to a halt when I was told, "Baptists are not recognized in the State of Israel."
Whenever it is politically expedient, Israeli authorities close an eye and issue visas to Baptist and other Evangelical clergy. But in general, most Christian ministries in the Holy Land, and particularly Evangelicals, confront huge obstacles when seeking visas for Western pastors or volunteers who wish to help them in their respective churches, schools and other ministries. These Israeli policies encumber the ministries of the various Christian denominations and add pain and frustration to the Christian minorities that are facing the threat of extinction in the birthplace of their faith.
In international forums, Israeli officials don’t miss an opportunity to state that Israel practices religious freedom and equality. Members of my church, East Jerusalem Baptist Church, wonder how Israeli officials define freedom of religion. It is ironic that the Western Evangelical churches that often give the greatest political, economic and moral support to the State of Israel are the churches that are the least privileged under Israeli rule.
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