Bethlehem wine stopped at checkpoint

 Christians in the Holy Land and in the UK will be without altar wine from Bethlehem this Christmas because Israeli soldiers are refusing to allow lorries carrying the wine to enter Israel.

The wine is made by a Roman Catholic religious order, the Salesians of Don Bosco, at the Cremisan winery in Beit Jala, a suburb of Bethlehem in the Occupied Territories of the West Bank. The Salesians have been producing wines for the past 125 years as a means of supporting their pastoral and educational work among the poor of Bethlehem.

But for the last five weeks Israeli soldiers at the Hebron checkpoint have refused to let the wine pass. This means that not only Christian churches, but also pilgrim houses, hotels and restaurants in Jerusalem, Nazareth and other parts of Israel are being deprived of Cremisan wine this Christmas.

Because the wine is shipped from the Israeli port of Haifa, the sudden embargo has also made it impossible for the wine to be exported to Europe. The soldiers have told Cremisan that the wine constitutes "a security risk."

The wine's UK importer, 5th Gospel Retreats, has informed the Archbishops of Westminster and Canterbury as well as the Apostolic Nuncio to the UK.
Catholic and Anglican parishes all over the UK, university chaplaincies and religious houses such as Ushaw, Oscott and Thornleigh Colleges, and Romsey and Worth Abbeys are all awaiting deliveries.

Also blocked from export is a red communion wine specially produced by Cremisan for the Anglican churches of England and Wales. (Altar wine for Catholics is usually white).

A major reason for UK churches choosing Cremisan wine is that its proceeds support Palestinian Christians. Some 30 families depend on the winery, as do hundreds of Palestinians both Christian and Muslim who are assisted through the Salesians' many projects in Bethlehem.

Priests have asked 5th Gospel Retreats to appeal to the senior hierarchy of the Catholic and Anglican Churches in the UK and Jerusalem, as well as the British government, to ask the Israeli authorities to allow the wine through the checkpoint as they have in the past.

Della Shenton of 5th Gospel Retreats said: "It is sad that this Christmas Christians are being denied the opportunity to be at one with the people of Bethlehem by drinking its wine. The wine has always until now flowed across the borders of mistrust in this troubled land. There are many of us hoping and praying that church authorities as well as the British Government will ask the Israeli authorities to end this unjustified embargo."

Cremisan began to export to the UK in 2006 through a not-for-profit company, 5th Gospel Retreats. Christians in the Holy Land and abroad buy the wine not just for its quality but because its purchase assists the economy of Bethlehem, which has been devastated by the drop in pilgrim numbers as a result of the political troubles in recent years.

The majority of sales are of altar (communion) wine which is a pure, unadulterated wine certified for celebration of the Mass by the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem. It is sold principally by mail order and delivered in the UK to an increasing number of churches and religious establishments.

This embargo is the latest obstacle in a series of increasing difficulties faced by the winery this year. Supplies of glass bottles have been held up as well as several truckloads of freshly-harvested grapes ­ thus rendering them useless for wine production. All lorries and vans to and from Cremisan have been forced to travel south to the checkpoint at Hebron, such that a journey to Jerusalem of 10 minutes has become a journey of at least 6 hours, including waiting at the checkpoint followed by security checks, with no certainty as to whether permission to pass through would be granted.

During 2008 the path of the Israeli Separation Wall was extended to include the Cremisan vineyards. Once completed, the wall will sever Cremisan from the Bethlehem villages where all the workers live, allowing entry to the winery only through a new checkpoint. The Salesians are currently negotiating for their staff to be allowed permits to work so that they do not lose their livelihoods and the winery will not lose its skilled workforce.

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