Oz Immigration Authority inspectors were accused of raiding a church in their search for illegal aliens in a Tel Aviv apartment building Monday morning.
Rev. Jyesi Baaye, who leads congregation Redemption Power, said in an interview to The Jerusalem Post that the inspectors violated regulations when they entered the unit, which he claims serves as a church. Oz officials say the unit was not recognized as a church and the inspectors entered it in order to arrest Ghanaian pilgrims who had escaped from their tour group in order to stay in Israel illegally.
The unit in question is a small apartment on Lavenda Street, next to the central bus station in Tel Aviv. The building is known to house several small African and Asian churches operating out of apartments units.
According to Baaye, the inspectors came to the apartment at eight in the morning, demanding entry. Baaye, who was not in the building at the time, said his congregants, fearful of confronting the inspectors, refused to open the door and let them in.
"The inspectors presented them with a court order to search the premises, but it was no good because these people can't read Hebrew," said Baaye. "When I examined the document later, I didn't see any indication that they were permitted to enter a church."
Baaye said that upon entering the unit the inspectors began trashing the apartment in their search for individuals in hiding, but made no arrests.
Baaye said that after he got to the church and saw and heard what happened, he took the court order to the migrant workers hotline to have it checked, and while he was away the inspectors came back and arrested everyone on the premises.
When asked why the doors of the church were locked, Baaye responded that while during communal prayer times the doors were open for anyone to join, when not in service the unit is locked to protect belongings.
"I encourage people to come and pray even if there isn't a service taking place at the time. Sometimes congregants stay the night in the church," said Baaye.
Baaye said he couldn't fault the people inside the unit for refusing to open the door.
"You need to go through the experience yourself in order to understand. I've been through it once in my life here and I know how it feels. Even if you are documented, you don't want to have any confrontation with them."
"My concern is that if a house of prayer can't be a sanctuary for people, then what will be of the democratic country of Israel," said Baaye. "I think there's a better way to conduct a search. They came looking for people, so why did they have to break our ceiling and turn the drawers upside down?"
Migrant workers hotline spokesman Rom Levkovich said the inspectors acted against standing procedures and accepted norms when they entered the church.
"The church is one of the most well known African churches in the city. It has been there for 20 years," he said. "Even the immigration police of old, which was notorious for its brutality and violent arrests, made sure to include in its regulations that churches were off limits."
Levkovitch said that while different from traditional churches and by no means a cathedral, Redemption Power was unmistakably a place of prayer.
"There are chairs set in a row and crosses everywhere," said Levkovitch. "In any case it can't be mistaken for an apartment."
Levkovitch said that a similar incident that resulted in arrests had taken place at that very church in 2002, and it was following that incident that the immigration police regulations on not entering places of worship were established.
"We're not going to let this pass. We will approach additional religious leaders and urge them to lead a public campaign, and we will assist the reverends in filing a lawsuit for damages against the Oz unit," said Levkovitch.
According to Ministry of Interior spokeswoman Sabin Hadad, the apartment in question is not recognized as a church and attempts to present the facts as if Oz inspectors raided a house of worship are "populist and deceitful."
"The people the inspectors arrested were part of an organized group of tourist pilgrims from Ghana, who ran away from the group and planned to remain in Israel to work. Oz's job is to detain illegal aliens, and that's what they did," said Hadad.
Oz intelligence officer Eran Kahat told the Post that they had received information indicating the tourists who had left their group in early December were hiding in an apartment on Lavenda Street. He said that the men identified themselves under false names and claimed they were asylum-seekers.
"We had copies of the their Ghanaian passports that were given to us by the tour organizers, so we knew that they were lying to us," said Kahat.
Kahat said that the list of recognized churches was well known to the unit and they avoid approaching them because of the sensitivity.
"On the same floor in the building there is a church of the Filipino community. We didn't even knock on their door to ask if they knew who was in the unit."
"We do not have that unit on record as a church. Anyone can say that an apartment functions as a church, but that doesn't mean the whole city turns into a place of prayer," said Kahat. "It was a normal apartment. It had musical instruments scattered around and bags full of personal belongings. The apartment functions as a hideout for illegal aliens on the run or people passing through."
Kahat also denied that Oz inspectors disrupted the apartment.
"The place was a mess when we got there, with belongings scattered everywhere.
One of the men tried to resist arrest and maybe some objects were overturned in the process."
The Oz immigration unit was founded in June 2009 to replace the immigration police. Oz inspectors work under the regulations of the Interior Ministry with a mandate to remove illegal aliens from Israel's borders.
Oz's work has come under harsh criticism by human rights groups since its founding.