In First, Israel Denies Entry to Religious Official Citing Support of BDS Movement

The World Council of Churches is vehemently protesting Israel's refusal to permit entry to Isabel Phiri, asserting Israel wrongly accused her based on misinformation.

Prof. Dr. Isabel Apawo Phiri (right) with Rev. Dr. Olav Fykse Tveit in Jerusalem, 2015
Prof. Dr. Isabel Apawo Phiri (right) with Rev. Dr. Olav Fykse Tveit in Jerusalem, 2015 Marianne Ejdersten / WCC

The World Council of Churches is vehemently protesting Israel's refusal to allow one of its executives to enter the country, charging that officials wrongly accused her of supporting the anti-Israel BDS movement.

It is the first time Israel has deported someone on the grounds that the person supported the Israel boycott, according to Israeli officials.

Israel interrogated and deported Dr. Isabel Apawo Phiri, a Malawi citizen who serves as the council's associate general secretary, after her arrival Monday at Ben-Gurion International Airport. Interior Minister Arye Dery decided against issuing the visa following consultations with Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, who is also in charge of the Strategic Affairs Ministry - tasked with countering anti-Israel boycotts. Phiri was sent back Monday night to Germany, from where she had originally departed for Israel. 

The council issued a statement Tuesday afternoon attacking the decision to deport Phiri, calling it "an unprecedented move." The statement described Phiri as a respected African theologian and senior official in the council, which represents 550 million Christians in 110 countries.

"Phiri was travelling to attend consultations with church leaders in Jerusalem on the Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine, one of the many programs and activities supported by the WCC globally," the organization stated.

Phiri is a resident of Geneva, Switzerland, and has served with the WCC executive since 2012. The organization stressed that Phiri was the sole African member of the WCC staff delegation and the only one who was denied entry to Israel, on the grounds of "Prevention of illegal immigration considerations."

The Population and Immigration Authority announced that the decision was made based on information from the Strategic Affairs Ministry about her work in the WCC, which it accused of supporting the BDS movement.

The WCC stated that it has "instructed its legal representatives to immediately lodge an appeal against 'this patently unjust and discriminatory action against Phiri.'"

“The accusations made against the WCC and the EAPPI program in the interrogation of Dr. Phiri and published in the media today are completely false,” said WCC general secretary Rev. Dr. Olav Fykse Tveit. “I am very surprised and dismayed that the Israeli Ministry of Interior is apparently basing its decisions on incorrect and unreliable sources.”

Sharon Dolev, an Israeli volunteer for the WCC, said the organization doesn't support the boycott at all. "It is not involved in BDS. The WCC never supported BDS," said Dolev. "Father Gabriel Naddaf, who has waged a campaign against the organization, is the one who said it supports BDS," she told Haaretz. "It simply isn't a BDS organization. We were in shock when Father Gabriel Naddaf put them at the center of his campaign. We were in shock that Gilad Erdan adopted this line without fact checking."

The Israeli Christians Recruitment Forum, headed by Father Naddaf, asserted half a year ago that the WCC supported boycotting Israel and that its members were entering Israel on tourist visas to document activity by Israeli security forces in Jerusalem and the Territories. The forum cooperated with right-wing organizations, among them the Zionist Foundation For Israel and My Israel to collect information on WCC activists.

The Population Authority yesterday confirmed Phiri's deportation. Shin Bet members interrogated her, concluding there was no security reason to deny her entry. Population and Immigration officials then questioned her, after which Dery directed that she be refused entry. The authority remarked that it is the first time a visitor was officially refused entrance due to support for the Israel boycott. The authority announced in a statement that a check by the Strategic Affairs Ministry revealed that "since 2002 the World Council of Churches has promoted the EAPPI program, whose activists come to Israel for allotted periods to promote anti-Israel activity."

The website of EAPPI, a program coordinated by the WCC, states that it brings international volunteers to monitor human rights in the West Bank. The program's vision is "a future in which the occupation of Palestine has ended and both Palestinians and Israelis enjoy a just peace with freedom and security based on international law." Its mission is "to witness life under occupation, engage with local Palestinians and Israelis pursuing a just peace, to change the international community's involvement in the conflict, urging them to act against injustice in the region."

The Strategic Affairs Ministry accuses EAPPI volunteers of engaging in anti-Israeli activities during their brief stays.

Minister Dery stressed that the authority invested in his hands on this issue was meant exactly for such instances when visitors cloak their true intentions to encourage anti-Israeli activity.

"Approving the entry of activists like Phiri is in fact backing the unacceptable activity that she and her comrades are promoting, and I have no intention whatsoever to give her a hand," Dery stated. "I will use all the authority in my hands to prevent harm to Israel."

Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan added that he would continue to keep BDS activists from entering Israel. "Their whole goal is to hurt Israel through collecting information and presenting it with distortions and lies to hurt Israel's image in the world," he said. "Boycott activists belong outside the state's borders, and we will continue to prevent their entry into our country."

Dery and Erdan announced in August they would establish a joint task force to prevent foreign members of organizations supporting the anti-Israel boycott from entering Israel and to expel such activists already in the country. The task force's main goal is to collect information and to identify boycott supporting foreign nationals. Israel's Entry Law empowers the Population and Immigration Authority to deny entry of foreigners and to deport those who have entered.

Though this is the first time Israel has officially rejected a tourist visa for anti-Israeli activity, it is not the first time that it has barred the entrance of foreign nationals.

In 2015, Israel refused to grant an entry visa to the South African Minister of Higher Education and Training, Blade Nzimande, because he intended to pass through Ben-Gurion International Airport for the purposes of visiting the Palestinian Authority, rather than visiting Israel.

In 2010, Noam Chomsky, the eminent American linguist and left-wing activist, was denied entry into Israel and the West Bank. Though no official reason was given for the decision, the Interior Ministry later said immigration officials at the Allenby Bridge border crossing from Jordan had misunderstood Chomsky's intentions thinking he was also due to visit Israel, and not the West Bank. Chomsky was slated to give a lecture at an Israeli and Palestinian university.