Theologian Barred From Entering Israel: Guards Didn’t Ask Me About BDS

Isabel Phiri is an executive of the World Council of Churches, which says it does not support boycotts or sanctions against Israel.

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Isabel Phiri of the World Council of Churches, September 2016.
Isabel Phiri of the World Council of Churches, September 2016.Credit: Albin Hillert, WCC
Ilan Lior
Ilan Lior

Isabel Phiri, a World Council of Churches executive who was barred from entering the country on grounds that she supports a boycott of Israel, said the border guards didn’t even ask about her activities or positions on the issue.

“The truth is in all the 5 sessions of interrogation by the Israeli border control officers, the issue of BDS did not come up,” Phiri told Haaretz in a Facebook message exchange, referring to the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. “I was therefore surprised to read that my deportation was linked to BDS. That is where I feel the minister of interior was misinformed.”

Phiri, a citizen of Malawi, is an African theologian now living in Switzerland.

The Population, Immigration and Border Authority reiterated Tuesday that the event of the previous day was a first. “This is actually the first time the State of Israel has refused entry to a tourist because of activity against Israel and the promotion of economic, cultural and academic boycotts of it,” the authority said in a statement.

Increased security at Ben-Gurion Airport, July 6, 2011Credit: Moti Milrod

However, the written explanation given to Phiri states that her entry to Israel was refused “to prevent illegal immigration.”

In any case, Phiri said that “supporting BDS is not the reason I was denied a visa.” Asked if she supports a boycott of Israel, she replied, “I follow the position of my employer, the WCC.”

Phiri said she was asked about her family, academic background and work with the World Council of Churches. She was also asked for detailed information about the Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel, a project supported by the council that recruits volunteers to monitor human rights violations.

According to the program’s website, the aim is to collect information about life under the occupation and encourage the international community to act against injustice in the region by being present in vulnerable communities and reporting on human rights violations.

At the airport, Phiri was asked about how the program was founded, the makeup of the program’s staff in Israel and the Palestinian Authority and what they do, and how employees are recruited. The emphasis was on their presence at checkpoints, farmers’ access gates and schools. She was also asked to name the churches in Israel and the PA that are members of the World Council of Churches.

“While I was truthful in my responses I also made it clear that I do not have the kind of details that they were looking for because I am at management level,” Phiri said. “There are 2 leaders below me who deal with EAPPI day to day issues who know more about the program than I do.”

For its part, the population authority responded, “Phiri is not the one to say why she was refused [entry], we are. The refusal was explained to her explicitly, contrary to what she claims.”

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

The general secretary of Phiri’s organization, Olav Fykse Tveit, told Haaretz that the group does not support boycotts or sanctions against Israel. He noted that the organization has 350 members and that each decides on its own what to do with its investments or what to ask of its members.

The population authority said the decision to block Phiri’s entry was based on information it had received from the Public Security Ministry.

“A comprehensive examination conducted by the ministry found that the World Council of Churches has over the years expressed support for boycotting Israel. The calls to boycott Israel have been expressed both in written material published by the WCC and by its activists’ extreme comments,” a spokesman for Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan said.

“One of many examples of the damage to Israel’s image that the WCC and the EAPPI program try to cause can be found in a document they wrote together in 2012. In the document there is a list of recommendations related to Israel, among them: joining economic boycott campaigns, initiating campaigns for cultural and academic boycotts, and encouraging groups that promote sanctions and call for halting American aid to Israel.”

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