Israel’s Ministry of Interior has decided to reinstate an old regulation that is threatening to cripple, if not shut down, several Christian ministries by limiting the time volunteers can spend serving in Israel to 27 months.
The ruling was as sudden as it was drastic. The effects began to be felt earlier this month when three volunteers from Christian Friends of Israel, assuming their visas would be renewed at the Interior Ministry under the previous five-year agreement, were instead told they had two weeks to pack up and leave the country.
Since then, several more volunteers who have been in the country at least two years have been denied visa renewals and are planning hasty departures. Many others have been left with a heavy sense of uncertainty as their own visas come due in the following months.
Several Christian organizations, which were founded to bless Israel, are bolstered by volunteer staff who until now served for up to five years in various capacities. The sudden change in policy has suddenly cut some staffs by 50 percent or more.
The regulation does not specifically target Christian volunteers, but is having the greatest effect on Christians and Christian organizations, which have a heavy presence in the land.
And while some of the larger Christian organizations are granted long-term staff visas and will perhaps be able to cope better with sudden losses, the smaller organizations - subject to the new turnover even at the managerial and founding levels - could end up shutting down or, at best, severely minimizing their outreach in the land.
The decision has left the community reeling and scrambling to make last-minute arrangements both for those leaving and others filling their voids. Volunteers who did not want to publicly criticize the government’s decision spoke to Israel Today on background. One manager said it is a critical time to lose people after investing in them for two years. Another pointed out that their own date of impending departure didn’t allow enough time to pass on their responsibilities.
Yuval Yerushalmi, attorney for four Christian organizations in Jerusalem, said while the enforcement affects all volunteers, “all this is definitely making our lives more difficult.”
Yerushalmi stressed that the new regulations cannot be painted as "anti-Christian activity," but acknowledged that they will leave Christian organizations hard-pressed to function on the same scale as they once did.
Even if, as many say, the Messianic Jewish body in Israel is forced out of the closet and picks up the humanitarian slack, one reason the Christians were here was to mend centuries-old rifts between Jews and Christians. That mission will undoubtedly be negatively impacted by the new regulations.
Those volunteers asked to leave will be allowed back into Israel on another volunteer visa of 27 months after a year out of the country. However, they must return with a visa approved and issued by the Israeli embassy in their country of origin, a difficult and cumbersome task.