A high-level delegation of Christian church leaders from Jerusalem was harassed at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv and prevented from flying to an important three-day international, interfaith meeting in London, beginning tomorrow.
The meeting, called by Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey, was a follow-up to a breakthrough interfaith meeting that produced the Alexandria Declaration, signed by Christian, Muslim and Jewish leaders who are working to resolve the Middle East crisis. 'The meeting is intended to promote the Declaration and come to grips with the root causes of the conflict,' said Bishop Riah Abu El-Assal, the Anglican bishop in Jerusalem and the Middle East. 'We believe that Jerusalem is central to peace efforts.'
The First Alexandria Declaration of the Religious Leaders of the Holy Land was originally issued in Alexandria, Egypt, on January 21, 2002. In addition to a cease-fire 'respected and observed on all sides,' it also calls for 'the implementation of the Mitchell and Tenet recommendations, including the lifting of restrictions and return to negotiations' on the part of Israelis and Palestinians.
Signatories included: Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey; Sephardi Chief Rabbi Eliahu Bakshi-Doron; Deputy Foreign Minister Rabbi Michael Melchior; President of the World Conference on Religion and Peace Rabbi David Rosen: Minister of State for the Palestinian Authority Sheikh Tal El Sider on behalf of the Palestinian delegation; a representative of the Greek Patriarch Archbishop Aristichos; Melkite Archbishop Boutrous Mouallem; and Bishop Riah of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem and the Middle East.
In an interview, Riah described how he and his colleague, Bishop Munib Younan of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jerusalem, were stopped at a road block on the way to the airport. Despite repeated promises of special VIP treatment from the Israeli government agency that deals with Christian communities in Israel, they were asked to get out of the car and submit to a search. Riah refused and urged the soldiers to check with their officers about the special arrangements, suggesting that the humiliating treatment was because they were Christians. After a while they were allowed to proceed to the airport.
When they arrived at the VIP lounge at the airport, Riah and Munib soon discovered that the two colleagues waiting for them--Archbishop Boutros Mouallem of the Greek Catholic Church and Father Elias Chacour, president of Mar Elias College in the Galilee--had suffered similar treatment. 'We were humiliated as never before,' said Riah in a phone call to the Rev. Andrew White in England, Carey's staff person during the meeting in Alexandria.
Security at the airport insisted that the church leaders identify and open their luggage before the flight, in clear violation of normal VIP treatment. The church leaders refused to comply or to allow staff to comply, escalating the incident. Archbishop Mouallem was asked to provide a certificate proving that he was a bishop, and then asked to step into a private room at the airport for interrogation. The stalemate ended when the church leaders asked for return of their passports and tickets. When told that a supervisor would meet with them, Munib said, 'It's too late.' When they returned to Jerusalem they learned that officials of the Ministry for Religious Affairs had mounted a quick investigation.
'We need not only an apology but an end to these attempts to humiliate us,' said Riah. 'This is very serious.'
Chacour said that the Greek Catholic archbishop, who carries a Vatican passport, had never experienced such humiliation. 'Every non-Jew is seen as a potential enemy,' Chacour said during an interview after the return to Jerusalem. 'We want to be friends with the Israelis and build bridges between our communities but it is becoming very difficult. We either build this state together or it won't be built,' he said. 'Unless they can overcome their paranoia, their feeling that they are victims, there will never be peace.'
Munib said that pressure against the Christian community and its leaders has been increasing. 'It's constantly like this,' he said in describing his difficulties during recent border crossings. 'If we are treated this way how do they treat normal Palestinian Christians?'
Israeli authorities representing the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Religious Affairs rushed to meet with the delegation. Rabbi Melchior of the Israeli Foreign Ministry called from London to personally apologize. All involved have promised 'a turning point' in their relationships and promised that the group would receive appropriate treatment when they attempted to leave again on the afternoon flight. Reports from the airport indicated that there were no further incidents and that the delegation continued the journey to London.
The First Alexandria Declaration of the Religious Leaders of the Holy Land: