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Sudanese refugees residing in Israel, who entered the country from Egypt over the last couple of years, voiced concern Monday over the government's new policy to turn away asylum seekers from war-torn Darfur and trepidation that they too may soon be sent back to Egypt.
"It is not like they will put me in jail if I go back to Egypt or Sudan, they will kill me," said Aida, 28, a Sudanese Christian who slipped into Israel nearly two years ago with her husband and young child.
"It is strange that the government will send away people who love Israel," she added.
The policy shift, which was implemented Sunday, follows the entrance of ever-increasing numbers of Sudanese into Israel through the country's porous southern border with Egypt.
Over the last couple of years, about 2,800 people have entered the country illegally through the Sinai desert, almost all of them from Africa, and nearly 1,200 from Sudan.
The sensitive issue has prompted months of debate and soul-searching in a country formed out of the ashes of the Holocaust, with some saying that Israel is morally obliged to offer shelter from murder.
But, the growing number of refugees, estimated by UN officials to be as many as 50 a day, prompted the government to change its policy, officials said.
Aida, who spent two days crossing the Egyptian-Israeli border on foot while pregnant, is one of nearly five dozen Sudanese Christians being assisted by the International Christian Embassy, a Jerusalem-based evangelical organization that has allocated nearly $50,000 for its two-month-old refugee assistance campaign.
She is living with her family in a Jerusalem apartment paid for by the organization. Her husband has just started a job at a Jerusalem hotel after spending one year in an Israeli jail and six months in a communal village.
"The government is Muslim and in Egypt they don't treat us well," she said. "We came to Israel because of our faith in the Bible."
"When you sit in a Western country, where there is freedom of religion, it is hard to understand what it means to be afraid of being killed because of your faith," said Charmaine Hedding of the International Christian Embassy, who is heading the Sudanese refugee assistance program.
In a delicate balancing act, Hedding conceded that Israel must decide what is best for itself as a country, but said Christians around the world could be enlisted to support and take in the Christian refugees, instead of sending them to Egypt where, she noted, they face religious persecution.
"These are Christians. We are Christians. Let us help be part of the solution," she said.
Israel has agreed to keep 500 refugees from the conflict-ravaged Darfur region of Sudan for humanitarian reasons, but those refugees are mostly Muslim, whereas the southern Sudanese are predominantly Christian.
Over the last two months, the organization, working in tandem with various Israeli relief organizations, has helped to temporary settle 60 refugees in communal farms across the country even as their future in Israel remains uncertain.
An Israeli supporter of the Darfur refugees in Israel said Monday that a ban on the refugees would be "a PR catastrophe" for the state of Israel.
"All the refugees who are returned to Sudan - whether to Darfur or to South Sudan - will be executed on arrival," said Eytan Schwartz, spokesperson for The Committee for Advancement of Refugees from Darfur.
But, the Israel director of the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center said Monday he supported the government's decision to stop the entry of refugees into Israel. "This is not a question of saving people from genocide, but about economic refugees who come here to improve the quality of their life," said the organization's chief Nazi-hunter Efraim Zuroff. He added that Israel's decision to let 500 refugees remain in the country was "an important symbolic gesture" of humanitarian aid based on the past history and suffering of the Jewish people, but said that "under no circumstance should Israel simply open the gates to anyone who wants to come." Sudan has seen a massive exodus of refugees in the past several years as a result of fighting in the western region of Darfur between ethnic African rebels and the pro-government janjaweed militia.
Since the conflict began in 2003, more than 200,000 people have been killed, and over 2.5 million driven from their homes.