Evangelical groups face visa hurdles

The Knesset's Christian Allies Caucus is leading a campaign to resolve the prickly issue.

christian solidarity  (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
christian solidarity
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Prominent evangelical Christian organizations based in Israel are facing legal hurdles in obtaining long-term visas for their permanent staff to remain in the country, hampering their day-to-day activity, Israeli and organization officials said Monday. The sticky legal issue, which comes at a time of burgeoning support for Israel in the evangelical Christian world, is under negotiation with the Interior Ministry. Dozens of senior workers in several evangelical groups in Israel on a five-year work visa could be forced to leave the country if no solution is worked out, seriously hindering the work of the staunchly pro-Israel organizations, the officials said. "We are talking about people who do extraordinary work for the State of Israel," said Yuval Yerushalmi, an Israeli attorney representing a coterie of evangelical Christian groups faced with the problem. "[Yet] it is very difficult to extend a visa for people who have been working in Israel more than five years," he added. The issue is being dealt with by the Knesset's cross-party Christian Allies Caucus but has failed to attract the attention of the Foreign Ministry or top Israeli leaders. This is compounded by the fact that over the last several years the Interior Minister has been replaced on an almost-yearly basis due to government shakeups. Some of the appointees are not necessarily familiar with the work of the evangelical groups, which have been honored by the Knesset and the Tourism Ministry for their decades-long work on Israel's behalf. The highly-coveted but sparsely-distributed clergy visas are primarily given out to officials with mainstream Christian organizations in the Holy Land, as well as to the head ministers of the evangelical groups based in Israel. This leaves the long-term staffers in such organizations treated like foreign workers, as their visa stipulates, when it comes to visa renewal. Interior Ministry spokeswoman Sabine Hadad said Monday that by law a foreign worker can stay in Israel for up to five years, and then requires special ministerial recommendation in order to extend their stay. She added that each case is looked into on an individual basis. Former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu has called the tens of millions of evangelical Christians in the US "the greatest supporters" of Israel outside the Jewish community. Over the last year, the Christian Zionist organizations have faced unprecedented criticism by non-evangelical Christian leaders in the Holy Land for their unflinching support for the State of Israel. They have also been given the cold shoulder by the Chief Rabbinate, which recently banned Jewish participation in a major Christian-sponsored tourism event due to concerns of proselytizing, despite widespread support in the Israeli public for the Christian Zionists.