A drawn out saga is taking place in Israel involving a Christian bishop a Jewish Rabbi and a number of diplomatic figures. It relates directly to the Christian bishop and his temporary residence status in Jerusalem, but it involves some important and wider questions about the way in which the Israeli government is treating religious minority groups.
Two weeks ago in some obvious frustration the Anglican Bishop in Jerusalem, bishop Suheil Dawani, posted on the Anglican Communion website a media statement setting out his struggle to renew his temporary residency status in Jerusalem so that he can continue to do is work as the Bishop of the diocese of Jerusalem. Bishop Dawani was installed as Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem in 2007 and was at that time recognised by the Israeli government as the head of the Anglican diocese. This accorded with previous practice whereby there are thirteen recognised churches in Israel. The Anglican Church is one of them.
The Anglican diocese of Jerusalem pre-dates the modern state of Israel. Anglican Bishops in Jerusalem who have not held Israeli citizenship have all been granted residency permits. Bishop Dawani and his family successfully renewed their permits each year, as required, in 2008 and 2009 but his last application for renewal was refused in August 2010.
The Israeli government took this action alleging that he had acted with the Palestinian Authority in transferring land is owned by Jewish people to the Palestinians and also helped to register lands of Jewish people in the name of the church. It also alleged that he had forged documents. The bishop was told to leave the country immediately together with his family.
The Bishop replied to the Minister of the Interior denying these accusations and seeking a restoration of his residency permit. No response was received to this letter. He wrote again challenging the allegations and requesting any documents or evidence against him. No such documents have been produced.
Since August last year a long struggle has taken place through "quiet" negotiations in order to deal with this problem. These efforts have involved support from the Archbishop of Canterbury in contact with the office of the Prime Minister of Israel. Bishop Dawani knew personally Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amer. He sought his assistance and the Chief Rabbi intervened with the authorities to try to restore the bishop's residency permit.
The Archbishop of Canterbury was assured of a prompt settlement of the question but despite representations from other Anglican leaders around the world nothing has happened. Support for the Bishop was given by the British and US governments but still nothing happened.
The Attorney General of Israel was asked for an explanation of the allegations against the Bishop but in the face of no response from that quarter the Bishop has now taken his case to court seeking redress through the Israel legal system. He currently awaits his time in court.
There is no doubt that governments can decline to renew residency permits not only in Israel but elsewhere. There is also no doubt that in most countries, and certainly in the case of Israel, there are established practices that shape those decisions. In this instance the explanation has been in the form of allegations about political activity.
The problem is that the Israeli government has declined to respond to requests for information or to provide the grounds for those allegations. It is one thing for a government to make an allegation on such a matter. It is quite another, after sustained attempts at negotiation, to refuse to provide any grounds for those allegations or to obstruct any attempt on the part of this bishop to defend himself against those allegations.
At this point in time they are merely allegations. They have not been tested. They have not been explained or justified.
It is surely time for the Israeli government to practice some public justice in this matter.
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