Church Leaders Livid Over Israel's Mistreatment of Iranian, Iraqi Delegates

Six Iranian refugees, all British nationals who arrived for Jerusalem conference, incarcerated near airport.

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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Ben-Gurion International Airport
Ben-Gurion International AirportCredit: Airports Authority
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

Leaders of the Anglican Church have expressed intense outrage over a decision by Israeli authorities to prevent two-dozen Middle Eastern delegates from participating in a Christian conference held in Jerusalem earlier this month.

Six of the delegates were detained when they landed in Israel and held under conditions described as “sub-standard” by the conference organizers, all but one of them subsequently deported, while the others were either denied entry visas into the country or their visa requests were only approved after the conference was over.

The group of delegates included 10 Iraqis, six Iranian refugees living in England, two Kurdish parliamentarians (the only Muslims in the group), and a high-ranking Coptic lawyer from Egypt.

“Things like this cause so much damage to Israel in the Christian community, particularly the new emerging Christian communities of the Middle East whose members are very interested in Israel and the Jewish people,” said Reverend David Pileggi, the head of the Anglican Evangelical church in Jerusalem, which organized the conference. He told Haaretz he had approached the Ministry of Interior almost eight weeks before the conference requested visas for the participants. “Those who were able to obtain visas received them just three days before the conference started,” he said.

The Ministry of Interior said in response that the reason some of the delegates were denied entry into Israel was that the conference organizers had submitted a request for them to obtain entry as a tour group, but they did not meet the criteria of a tour group. “The conference organizers were asked to submit each request individually, but they insisted on doing it as a group, so they have only themselves to blame for what happened,” said Sabine Haddad, the ministry spokeswoman.

This is the second time that Christ Church in Jerusalem has hosted this conference, known as Crossroads, which brings Christian delegates from Middle Eastern countries on a one-week trip to Israel. Among the 100 delegates who were able to participate, many thanks to foreign passports in their possession, were representatives from Egypt, Iraq and Armenia. The guest of honor was Andrew White, known as the “vicar of Baghdad,” who serves as the reverend of the only Anglican church in Iraq.

Pileggi told Haaretz that his church encountered no difficulties obtaining visas for participants in the first Crossroads conference held two years ago. “For 60 years, we’ve been bringing Christians from the Middle East and Africa to Israel, and never once did any of them end up being a security threat,” he said. “What many people don’t know is that there’s been an unprecedented growth of Christianity in the Middle East, and these new Christian groups are very curious about Israel and interested in visiting the country. We are trying to build a network here, and incidents like this cause so much damage.”

The six delegates were held at the Lod Detention Center near the airport for nearly 10 hours. According to Dr. Elihu Richter, a professor at the Hebrew University-Hadassah School of Public Health and Community Medicine who tried to visit them, they were held in intolerable conditions. “I wasn’t allowed to talk them, and there were couples there who were separated from one another,” he told Haaretz. Richter said he was well acquainted with the Anglican church in Jerusalem because of his involvement in the Jerusalem Center for Genocide Prevention, which has hosted workshops for its members.

A legal appeal by the Iranian detainees to remain in the country was rejected, and all but one of the delegates in the group was deported.

Earlier this week, Richter sent a letter to Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar expressing his outrage at the treatment received by the delegates. “What was supposed to have been a joyous week of triumph and bonding with Israel turned into a disgraceful exercise in mistreatment and humiliation for too many fledgling friends of Israel,” he wrote. “The news about the shabby mistreatment of the visitors in the Lod Detention Center has ricocheted throughout the entire Middle East and beyond. Your ministry’s mishandling and mistreatment of the applicants has caused strategic damage to Israel’s name and its standing the Christian world. The Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Manchester have already filed complaints with the Israeli Embassy regarding your ministry’s mistreatment of the Iranian UK Christian refugees.”

Richter also demanded that the ministry issue a formal apology to those delegates who suffered mistreatment or were unable to participate in the conference and compensate them in the form of a trip to Israel as Sa’ar’s personal guests.

Richter said he had not received any response from the minister to his letter.

The Christian Orthodox Holy Fire ceremony at Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Holy Saturday in 2011.Credit: Reuters

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