Christian officials accuse Israel of holiday discrimination

JERUSALEM (AP) — 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.

Israel last month 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 provides free trips to Israel to young Jews from around the world. Groups from the United States are expected to arrive next week, with participants all fully vaccinated and remaining in small “capsules.”

For now, restrictions remain in effect for other foreign tourists, including Christian pilgrims who traditionally have flocked to sites like Jerusalem, Nazareth and Bethlehem, the biblical town in the occupied West Bank revered by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus.

Wadie Abunassar, a spokesman and adviser to churches in the Holy Land, said various denominations were upset over the selective treatment and he accused Israel of discriminating against Christian pilgrims.

“Racist discrimination should never be accepted in any way!” he wrote on Facebook. “I urge the Israeli authorities to treat all those who want to visit the country equally without any discrimination between religion.”

An official with the Catholic Church said church officials were shocked and angry by the Israeli decision. He said the church, along with other denominations, have appealed to Israel’s Tourism Ministry to allow Christian pilgrims to come for the holiday. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Israel’s Interior Ministry, which oversees entrance policies at the country’s borders, said the policy remains not to allow foreigners into Israel.

But it said a number of exceptions have been made, including a “specific” decision for the Birthright program. It said officials would be discussing the possibility of other exceptions in the near future, but gave no further details.

The travel ban has crushed the tourism industry in Israel, and officials in Bethlehem, whose economy relies heavily on Christmas visitors, say the restrictions have ruined the holiday season for a second straight year. The West Bank does not have its own airport and most foreign visitors enter from Israel.

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