A spokesman for Christian churches in the Holy Land on Wednesday accused Israel of discriminating against Christian tourists during the normally busy Christmas holiday season.
Last month, Israel closed its borders to foreign tourists in response to the outbreak of the omicron coronavirus variant.
But this week, Israeli officials decided to make an exception for “Birthright,” a popular program that offers free trips to Israel to young Jews around the world. Groups from the United States are expected to arrive next week, with participants all fully immunized and staying in small “capsules.”
For now, restrictions remain in place for other foreign tourists, including Christian pilgrims who have traditionally flocked to sites like Jerusalem, Nazareth and Bethlehem, the biblical city in the occupied West Bank revered by Christians as the location of birth of Jesus.
Wadie Abunassar, spokesperson and counselor for churches in the Holy Land, said various denominations were unhappy with the selective treatment and accused Israel of discriminating against Christian pilgrims.
“Racist discrimination should never be accepted! He wrote on Facebook. “I urge the Israeli authorities to treat all those who wish to visit the country on an equal footing, without any discrimination between religions.
A Catholic Church official said church officials were shocked and angry at the Israeli decision. He said the church, along with other denominations, appealed to Israel’s Tourism Ministry to allow Christian pilgrims to come for the holidays. The official spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Israel’s Interior Ministry, which oversees the country’s border entry policies, said the policy remained not to allow foreigners to enter Israel.
But he said a number of exceptions have been made, including a “specific” decision for the Birthright program. He said officials would discuss the possibility of other exceptions in the near future, but gave no further details.
The travel ban has crushed Israel’s tourism industry, and officials in Bethlehem, whose economy relies heavily on Christmas visitors, say the restrictions have ruined the holiday season for a second year in a row. The West Bank does not have its own airport, and most foreign visitors enter from Israel.