Pilgrims from Indonesia visit Cana Church in Galilea, Israel, in 2015. (Photo supplied by Franciscan Father Theodorus Beta Herdistyan)
Church officials are calling on Israel to review a ban on Indonesian tourists, saying it will harm thousands of pilgrims due to visit the Holy Land.
The ban was seemingly in response to Indonesia refusing visas for Israelis following weeks of deadly violence on the Gaza-Israel border that led to Indonesians protesting what they say is Israel's harsh treatment of the Palestinians.
Last year 905 groups from Indonesia consisting of 30,099 pilgrims visited the Holy Land, according to data from the Franciscan Pilgrims Office. Only the United States and Italy sent more pilgrims.
"The ban is disappointing for Christians who have been saving money for a long time to fulfil their hope of visiting the Holy Land as part of their journey of faith," said Father Paulus Christian Siswantoko, executive secretary of the Indonesian bishops' Commission for the Laity.
"Israel should give a warning before taking that policy. The Israeli government needs to renew the policy and the Indonesian government also needs to demand Israel cancel it."
Indonesia and Israel have no diplomatic ties but pilgrims have entered Israel on special visas for religious pilgrimages.
Israel's ban on Indonesian tourists will be effective June 9.
Indonesia's Minister of Justice and Human Rights Yasonna Laoly confirmed on June 1 that immigration authorities had refused visas for 53 Israeli citizens recently.
He refused to disclose reasons, saying the problem was sensitive. "However, it is our prerogative as a state to accept or refuse the visa of another country's citizens," he added.
Eko Put Widiarso, communications chief of pilgrimage company Christour, said it was deeply disappointed by Israel's decision and hoped there would be a new policy in the next few days.
The company takes two groups to the Holy Land every month, with one group of 100 people due to depart on June 9.
"Applications for visas have been filed since May but we have not received the manifest as usual," Widiarso said.
He said the group will still depart on June 9 but will only visit Egypt and Jordan.
"Although this visit cannot replace the longing of pilgrims to go to Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth in Israel's territory, we will still try to serve them," he said.
Father Albertus Erens Novendo Gesu, an Indonesian-born priest who is studying in Jerusalem and often helps pilgrims, told ucanews.com that Israel's policy would not only harm Indonesian pilgrims.
"Local tour agents, guides and drivers who specifically serve the pilgrims of Indonesia must really feel the effects," he said.
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