WASHINGTON (February 8, 1999) -- The Israeli government's practice of confiscating the residency permits of Palestinians living in East Jerusalem is "an infringement upon the rights of all Palestinians, Christian and Muslim," according to a letter to the Israeli ambassador to the United States co-signed by three U.S. church leaders.
The letter to Ambassador Zalman Shoval was signed by Archbishop Spyridon of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, Archbishop Khajag of the Armenian Church in America, and Bishop Joseph A. Fiorenza, President of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/U.S. Catholic Conference. The heads of numerous other religious denominations in the United States endorsed the letter.
"We call upon the government of Israel to safeguard their [Palestinians'] rights, to rescind these deleterious policies, to restore identity cards that have been confiscated, and to refrain from further confiscation," the U.S. church leaders said.
The objections of the three U.S. prelates lends support to a similar call made October 19 by their counterparts in Jerusalem. In a letter to the Israeli Interior Minister, Greek Orthodox Patriarch Diodoros I, Armenian Apostolic Patriarch Torkom Manoogian, and Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah said that "although some of these confiscations have been justified legally, we feel that this issue constitutes a serious practical dislocation of the Palestinian population within Jerusalem."
According to a September 1998 report by B'tselem, the Israeli human rights organization, confiscations of residency permits of Palestinians living in East Jerusalem have increased dramatically. In the years 1987 through 1995, confiscations averaged 36 per year, with a high of 96 in 1995. From 1995 to 1996, however, the number of confiscations jumped more than 700 percent to 689, and has remained close to that level since.
"We offer you our support in your protest to the government of Israel," the U.S. church leaders said in notifying the Patriarchs of their letter to Ambassador Shoval. "We share your concern for the alarming increase in the confiscation of East Jerusalem identity cards from Palestinians."
All the Church leaders expressed their concerns about the dwindling presence of the Christian community in Jerusalem as a consequence of the confiscations.
"With this acceleration in the confiscation of identity cards, we must remind you that what impacts Palestinians in general doubly impacts Christian Palestinians in particular," the Patriarchs of Jerusalem said in October.
The letter to the Israeli Ambassador from the U.S. hierarchs also noted that "the churches in the Holy City of Jerusalem are not composed only of stones, but more importantly are communities of faithful, worshipping believers. Any further diminution of their numbers or weakening of their vitality is a matter of great concern to churches everywhere."