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Catholic World News News Feature

Vatican impatience with Israeli visa policy April 02, 2004

In a sign of mounting tensions between the Vatican and Israel, a cardinal has denounced the treatment of Catholic missionaries in the Jewish state.

Cardinal Roberto Tucci, in an April 2 talk on Vatican Radio, said that Catholic priests and religious are being treated as "clandestine immigrants" because the Israeli government refuses to renew their visas, in an apparent violation of the "fundamental accord" between the Holy See and Israel.

"The Israeli government has a lot of concerns these days, but by blocking the issuance of residency permits for monks and nuns, they are posing serious problems for the Catholic in Israel and the Palestinian territories," the cardinal said. Cardinal Tucci, the honorary president of Vatican Radio, is a seasoned diplomat, having served for years as the "advance man" who arranged the details of papal trips abroad.

For the past two year, Catholic missionaries living in Israel have found that their applications for visa renewals are being blocked. As more and more missionaries saw their visas expire before a renewal was granted, the situation became a matter of urgency. By March 2004, at least 130 priests and religious were living in Israel without legal permission.

While the Catholic Patriarchate of Jerusalem has 78 diocesan priests, there are more than 1217 Franciscans working in the Holy Land, along with over 100 other religious congregations accounting for nearly 2,000 monks and nuns. Nearly all of these religious orders include missionaries from other countries, so the pastoral work of the Church in Israel and the Palestinian territories relies heavily on foreign missionaries.

Church authorities point out that under the terms of their 1993 pact with the Holy See, Israeli authorities are pledged to cooperate with the missionary activities of Catholic institutions; they see the new visa policy as a contravention of that agreement.

The cardinal observed that Catholic missionaries living in Israel, when they are denied visa renewals, are forced to live as illegal immigrants. "This is a grave situation that worsens day by day," he said. He added that Vatican concerns are heightened by the fact that the Israeli policy has not been explained, and there are no "institutional channels for dialogue" on the subject.

"I hope that the Western churches-- European and American-- will exercise pressures to help the Church in Israel and the Palestinian territories," Cardinal Tucci said.