Just prior to Pope’s visit, another Christian group was denied entry to Israel

Shortly before opening its doors to Pope Francis on Sunday, Israel’s Interior Ministry barred several dozen Middle East Christians from attending an empowerment conference in Jerusalem, denying visas to half of the 40 applicants and detaining and eventually deporting six British nationals of Iranian origin, the organizers claim.

The Crossroads Conference 2014, run by Vicar David Pileggi, the head of Christ Church Jerusalem – the oldest Protestant church in the Middle East and one with Zionist roots that precede Theodor Herzl – was to host 100 Christians from Egypt, Jordan and Iraq (the Kurdish areas), along with several Armenians and Iranian refugees. The “Vicar of Baghdad,” Canon Andrew White, was the guest of honor.

The participants, including two Kurdish parliamentarians who had been granted permission to travel to Israel by the Kurdish Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, one Coptic lawyer and several church leaders, were to take part in a conference that sought to “try and advance greater Christian presence in Muslim lands” and to “encourage them to get out of their ghettos,” Pileggi told The Times of Israel in a phone interview.

Pileggi, a supporter of Israel who knew each of the participants personally, many from a similar conference in 2012, submitted on March 23, some seven weeks before the start of the conference, 40 entry visa requests. But for weeks, despite constant pressure, none of the requests were processed, activists claimed.

“Two weeks before the conference, the organizers were horrified to discover that the official dealing with the visa requests had not even opened the envelopes,” Dr. Elihu Richter, a retired professor of community medicine at Hebrew University-Hadassah School of Public Health and Community Medicine, wrote to Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar.