Israel pressed over ban on bishops' visit to Gaza

By staff writers
February 10, 2009

Leaders of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and the Episcopal Church have sent a letter to Israel’s ambassador to the United States expressing “grave concern” and requesting help to determine why a Lutheran bishop and an Episcopal bishop were denied entry to Gaza on 4 February 2009.

The letter from the Rev Mark S. Hanson, ELCA presiding bishop, and the Most Rev Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, was sent to Sallai Meridor, ambassador of Israel, in Washington DC.

On 4 February, the Rev Munib A. Younan, bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land (ELCJHL), and the Rt. Rev. Suheil Dawani, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese in Jerusalem and the Middle East, were part of a delegation of five heads of churches in Jerusalem who travelled to visit Christians in Gaza. Three members of the delegation were allowed to enter Gaza, but Israeli security officials denied entry to Younan and Dawani.

According to an ELCJHL news release, Younan and Dawani were the only Palestinians in the delegation. Both said they had obtained permits from Israeli officials to enter Gaza.

“The purpose of their visit was pastoral—to visit churches, humanitarian projects of the Middle East Council of Churches and the Al Ahli Hospital, an institution of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem,” the two U.S. presiding bishops wrote. “We are concerned that they were not allowed freedom of movement into Gaza to carry out their pastoral responsibilities.”

“We believe that it is urgent that adequate humanitarian assistance reach the people of Gaza immediately, and we underscore Bishop Dawani’s statement that ‘most certainly pastoral care is an important factor in such services,’” Hanson and Jefferts Schori wrote.

The presiding bishops wrote that they support their partner bishops and churches in their Christian ministry, and they share their continued commitment to work for peace in the region. Statements from Younan and Dawani, following their denial of entry, reaffirmed their commitments to work for peace in Gaza, the presiding bishops wrote.

“We hope that, having discovered the cause of their denial, you will assure that they will be permitted to enter as soon as possible to offer support and pastoral care to the people they serve,” the presiding bishops’ letter concluded.

Copies of the letter were sent to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and George Mitchell, US special envoy for Middle East peace.

An 87-year-old archbishop was among those deported by the Israeli army last Wednesday, after it boarded a ship in international waters bound for the Gaza Strip.

The Lebanese vessel 'al-Ikhwa' was carrying several tons of humanitarian aid from Tripoli.

The Emeritus Greek-Melkite Archbishop of Jerusalem Hilarion Capucci, together with the crew of 10 Syrian and Lebanese and other nationals were detained at Israel's international airport pending repatriation.

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