Christian pilgrimage groups are angry over new coronavirus rules barring them from Israel at Christmastime, while Jewish “birthright” groups are still free to enter the country from almost any other country in the world.
Israel, which instituted one of the most stringent coronavirus measures in the world in 2020 as the virus raged around the world, even stopping its own citizens from returning home, has a new controversy on its hands.
Many Christians traditionally visit Israel during Christmas as pilgrims, to walk in the steps of Jesus and visit Nazareth, Bethlehem, Jerusalem and other places in Israel. But trips to Israel are out this year.
For Christians, anyway.
Christian pilgrims barred from Israel at Christmastime
Meanwhile, Jewish tour groups from just about anywhere in the world are free to enter the country.
Haaretz reports that it was Israel’s Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked who exempted “Jewish tourism” from the new ban on foreigners entering the country after the Omicron variant of the coronavirus began circulating.
Traditionally, many hundreds of thousands of Christians visit the Holy Land at this very special time — and undoubtedly a certain percentage of them would still love to do so, despite the spike in the coronavirus all around the world.
But that won’t be happening this year, thanks to a group of ministers who approved only those groups who belonged to what they called “Jewish tourism” early this week, exempting them from all entry restrictions.
As several other countries moved to do after the discovery of the Omicron mutation of the coronavirus, Israel quickly reinstituted its original 2020 ban on foreigners entering the country in November. But this time, there’s a difference — Christian groups are being denied entry while Jewish groups are still allowed in freely under the new decision.
“We have no intention of haggling”
Christian organizations in Israel protested the new policy, which comes into effect just days before Christmas. Unnamed church leaders who spoke to Haaretz stated that they had already asked officials in Israel’s Health and Interior Ministries to approve the entry of just a few dozen priests and nuns at Christmas; they were refused.
A senior clergyman, who is also unnamed, stated “(Coronavirus) numbers have plummeted dramatically; it should have been no problem to approve entry in capsules and subject to Green Pass regulations. This step would have prevented discrimination and given some air to tourism centers, which are in a deep crisis at the height of pilgrimage season.”
“We have no intention of haggling,” another church figure, who was also unnamed, declared. “There is an issue of principle here – why are Birthright visitors, who are foreign citizens, getting such an exemption, while pilgrims are not? The only difference is that they are Jews.”
After opening up once again to tourists in November, Israel tightened its borders in the last several weeks, causing the influx of tourists to stop almost completely. In normal times, as many as three million Christians visit Israel annually; hundreds of thousands of them are religious pilgrims who visit a range of holy sites. They bring many millions of dollars to Israeli coffers — when they are allowed to come.
Shaked and the other ministers reportedly claimed that Jewish tourism is of such national importance that it must be allowed to continue despite the coronavirus; Haaretz reports that the Minister declined to comment for the story.
All throughout the pandemic, Israel had barred inbound travel, making various exceptions for Birthright participants, as well as some exchange and yeshiva students as well as foreign workers with special areas of expertise and the immediate family members of Israeli citizens.
At certain times, Israel even allowed organized tourist groups to come to the country, while visitors from nations that are “red” on the coronavirus map were barred completely.
Separate guidelines were created for Birthright and similar organizations back in April, however, at the beginning of the pilot program for reestablishing tourism to Israel. That program was allowed to bring 1,000 people to Israel; but in actuality a total of 4,666 Birthright participants arrived and were accepted into Israel this past year.