The Israeli Ministry of Interior has contacted the lawyer for the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem (ICEJ) regarding visa problems recently affecting permanent ICEJ staff and volunteers.
ICEJ staff said the Ministry of Interior is conducting a review of the current policy, which has led to staff being denied entry into Israel, according to The Jerusalem Post.
ICEJ Vice President David Parsons welcomed the news, saying: “We have been waiting on this review for over three years now without any valid explanation for the delays and drastic changes in visa policies over that time.”
The lack of contact or explanation from the Interior Ministry led Parsons to reach out to the media last week, speaking to journalist Judy Maltz from Haaretz, as well as the staff at ALL ISRAEL NEWS.
Parsons told ALL ISRAEL NEWS he felt that he had run out of options.
He explained that the visa issues first began during the COVID pandemic in 2020 and grew during the ministry's multiple turnovers, as frequent government changes over the last two years have apparently led to a lack of consistent oversight.
Organizations such as ICEJ, Christian Friends of Israel and Bridges for Peace have a written agreement with the ministry to receive a certain number of clergy visas annually. But that agreement stopped being honored starting about 18 months ago and Parsons believes there was an uncommunicated shift in policy about that time. After the end of COVID restrictions, the ministry stopped granting clergy visas to permanent staff without explanation.
The ICEJ vice president said the sudden change left permanent staff in difficult situations, with some relying on overseas family support while awaiting visa decisions from the Israeli government.
ICEJ was informed they didn't qualify as a religious organization, and couldn't receive clergy visas.
New volunteer visa requirements targeted wealthy nations with at least 50% of Israel's GDP, leading ICEJ President Jürgen Bühler to label it as "social discrimination."
"This is social discrimination for the Global South, which is the most pro-Israel community in the world, at least from the Evangelical community'" Bühler said.
Regarding the areas of Latin America, Southeast Asia, and Africa, Bühler added, “The majority of our supporters are coming from those areas, and they are discriminated against.”
He also said the change in requirements has been “very, very difficult to explain to our constituency.”
Bühler hopes the government resolves the issue quickly, because "this could really harm the loyalty and the longstanding friendship of Evangelical Christians with the State of Israel.”
Israeli lawyer Calev Myers called the ICEJ’s work “extremely important to the diplomatic work of Israel and its image around the world.”
Myers said the ICEJ and similar organizations need a certain amount of permanent staff to stay in Israel and underscored the necessity of that core permanent staff to represent the organization and Israel accurately, particularly due to the significant investment of time and resources in training. In the past, permanent staff received clergy visas.
The Ministry of Interior proposed a new visa category for organizations involved in pro-Israel advocacy, Myers told ALL ISRAEL NEWS.
He said the previous policy should continue because clergy visas have always required the approval of the senior director of Christian Denominations at the Interior Ministry, Cesar Margia.
Margia checks that applicants hold valid credentials as clergy from a recognized denomination.
Myers added that there is “no need to create a new category” because the previous policy worked and that clergy visas “fit who they are and what they are doing,” he said.
ALL ISRAEL NEWS Chief Editor Joel Rosenberg said it isn’t clear where the change in policy is coming from.
“The question is whether these are mid-level bureaucrats inside the Ministry of Interior that may have a political or religious bias against Christians,” Rosenberg said.
Regardless, he said, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should intervene.
Calling Netanyahu “wonderfully supportive of Christians," Rosenberg said, “I think if he steps in and makes it clear to the Ministry of Interior, from top to bottom, ‘This is a problem and it’s unacceptable,’… I think it will all get cleared up.”
Parsons is confident the ICEJ will work out a solution with the Ministry of Interior.
“We are confident we can work out a long-term resolution on our visas now that we have their attention,” he commented.
ALL ISRAEL NEWS spoke with several other Evangelical organizations, who confirmed they have had similar issues but declined to comment, as they are waiting to see if the issue will be resolved before making public statements.
The All Israel News Staff is a team of journalists in Israel.