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April 12, 2013

Calling on Office of Religious Freedom to investigate Israeli violations

Scott Stockdale

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In accordance with the mandate of the Canadian government's Office of Religious Freedom to promote Canadian values of religious freedom, human rights and the rule of law worldwide, the Canadian Friends of Sabeel (CFOS) is calling on the Canadian government to investigate the restrictions and denial of access for thousands of Palestinian Christians to their mother city of Jerusalem for worship during the Easter week.

CFOS is a national support network for Sabeel, Ecumenical Center for Liberation Theology in Jerusalem. Sabeel's vision statement says in part that it strives to promote a more accurate international awareness regarding the identity, presence, and witness of Palestinian Christians and the wider Palestinian community, as well as their contemporary concerns.

Palm Sunday celebrations in Jerusalem were compromised during Easter week by the denial of permits to hundreds of Palestinians, including girl and boy scout marching bands planning to take part in the ancient annual procession retracing Jesus's entry into Jerusalem.

In Bethlehem – birthplace of Jesus Christ – about half of the residents are Christian, but because Bethlehem is a Palestinian city with a mixed Christian-Muslim community, lying in the occupied West Bank territory, these Christians were denied permits to go and worship in Jerusalem during Easter week. Despite international regulations requiring Israel to ensure access to Christian and Muslim holy places that are under its control, for over 10 years, Christians in Palestine have been prevented from freely entering the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem for worship.

U.N. reports state that the spiritual, cultural and economic links between Bethlehem and Jerusalem – just a few kilometres away – have been nearly severed due to the construction of Israeli settlements around the city.  Israel has erected physical barriers, restricted travel on roads to Israelis, and has intensified its policy of restricting the movement of Palestinian civilians.

CFOS Chair The Rev. Robert Assaly recalls the continued restrictions on religious practices since he lived there 20 years ago.

“I remember the shame I felt every year as we headed down the road with our Canadian passports to the Mount of Olives for the Palm Sunday procession, bidding farewell to my neighbours who were denied access.”

This is the type of systemic discrimination that the Canadian Office of Religious Freedom has a mandate to address, yet Canadian Immigration Minister Jason Kenney continues to support Israel's violations of international law. In a recent statement Mr. Kenney characterized Israel as “the only truly liberal democracy in the Middle East.”

The Rev. Robert Assaly responded, “Mr. Kenney is predictable and seems to be out of touch with Canadian values. He unabashedly slandered Kairos Canada with the vicious anti-Semitism label. He has even supported the equation of Israel’s values, which including criminal breaches of international law, with Canada’s values.”

Meanwhile, Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi – a Christian – said there should not even be a question of needing permits to visit one's own city.

“East Jerusalem is the occupied capital of the Palestinian people and freedom of worship is a basic human right for all of our Christian and Muslim citizens, a right that is being systematically and increasingly denied by a foreign occupying force.”

These restrictions are contraventions of fundamental human rights and international law, including the IV Geneva Convention for which federal law requires Canada to ensure respect by the occupying power, Israel.

In a press release, CFOS called upon the Office of Religious Freedom to address this, and to clarify unequivocally that these violations are contrary to both Canadian values and the rule of international law.

Moreover, CFOS is requesting the Office of Religious Freedom to publicize its findings and report so the Minister of Foreign Affairs responsible for the Office of Religious Freedom can publicly call Israel to account during his upcoming visit there and demand a permanent termination of such discriminatory practices before the Eastern calendar Holy Week in one month's time.

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