Jerusalem church leaders blocked from attending London interfaith meeting

 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 in January 2002 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 Abu El-Assal of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem and the Middle East. In an interview, Bishop 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. Bishop 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, Bishops Riah and Munib soon discovered that the two colleagues waiting for them--Archbishop Boutros Mouallem of the Greek Catholic Church and Father Elias Chacour, a Melkite from The Galilee--had suffered similar treatment. "We were humiliated as never before," said Bishop 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 further asked to step into a private room at the VIP lounge 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, Bishop 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. Israeli authorities representing the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Religious Affairs have rushed to meet with the delegation. Rabbi Melchior has called from London to personally apologize. All involved have promised a turning point in these matters, and that the group will receive appropriate treatment when they attempt to leave again on today's afternoon flight. "We need not only an apology but an end to these attempts to humiliate us," said Bishop Riah. "This is very serious." Father 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," Father 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." Bishop 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?" James Solheim is director of Episcopal News Service and reports from a trip of journalists in the Middle East sponsored by Church World Service of the National Council of Churches.

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