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Politicized Pilgrimage

Israel’s ban on Ethiopian pilgrims stirs controversy

Last week, surprising news came out of the Middle East with Israel reportedly set to bar entry to Ethiopian Christian pilgrims for the upcoming Easter holiday, for fears they will not return home after the festivities due to the political tension in Ethiopia.

In mid-March 2022, Israeli-based media reported that Ethiopian tour companies have received a letter from Israel’s Population and Immigration Authority, explaining any Ethiopian travelers who wish to visit Israel in the upcoming holiday, needs to contact the Authority personally and receive permission to enter.

While many other tourists from various countries are allowed to submit a group application for tourists that want to travel as a group, Ethiopian pilgrims are not guaranteed the same protocol as others or like the years before.

The move to ban pilgrims is a result of officials’ fearing the tourists might not go back to their country due to the ongoing civil war in Ethiopia. Israel’s Immigration Authority indicated that the latest policy is an essential step to minimize Ethiopian pilgrims seeking to stay in Israel, instead of returning home.

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It has been more than 18 months since the conflict in northern Ethiopia started, and the situation remains unsolved.

When a decision to prohibit Ethiopian pilgrims comes from a nation like Israel, a country founded by refugees, against a country like Ethiopia, home to a large number of Jewish populations for centuries; it won’t be naïve to consider the move as an ironic measure.

Some also say the state of Israel has an international responsibility when it comes to freedom of religious worship at the holy sites of Jerusalem, which are located within the borders of Israel.

Easter holiday pilgrimage is a unique holiday to witness the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ, which has brought many international tourists to the holy sites of Israel.

Historically, when the Israelites dispersed across the globe, for better or worse, some were found, in safe havens such as Ethiopia, where they stayed for centuries.

The government of Israel, since late 1940s, has been moving Ethiopian Jews to Israel. In November 2021, Israel approved a plan to let some 9,000 Ethiopians with first-degree relatives in Israel immigrate under the Law of Return.

According to media reports, approximately 13,000 Ethiopian Jews reside in Addis Ababa and Gondar, the majority of whom are waiting to migrate to Israel, which they claim is their homeland.

Through an effort by successive governments which sought to integrate Ethiopian Israelis with the majority Jewish population, approximately 160,000 Ethiopian Israelis live in Israel now – representing a mere two percent of the total Israeli population.

Following the formation of modern-day Israel, the diplomatic relationship between the State of Israel and Ethiopia was filled with ups and downs.

From the rupture in relations during the Yom Kippur War in 1973 to the drama of Operation Solomon in 1991, the nature of the relationship has changed, with a millennia-old relation tangled in history, culture and religion.

One such entanglement is the Christian pilgrimage during the time of Easter.

In some religious traditions, pilgrimage has a paramount importance. For Christians, this annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem is a journey or search of moral or spiritual significance, which supports spiritual growth by bringing the believer closer to the divine.

According to Christian teachings, during the week leading up to his death, Jesus visited Jerusalem during Passover. Many Christian believers from around the globe travel to Jerusalem to commemorate this holy week.

Ethio-Israel relations, however, pre-dates Christianity. It is long before the birth of Christ, when Queen Sheba of Ethiopia traveled to Israel and came back bearing a son that would became the very foundation of Ethiopian royalty.

Moreover, the Ethiopian Orthodox church is one of the few intuitions that, from early times to this day, rightfully own the Deir Sultan Monastery in Israel.

Of course, Ethiopia is passing under a difficult time in its history, but baring religious pilgrimage while all these historical, cultural, and religious factors are at play, may be a manifestation of the lack of diplomatic attention and weakening of public diplomacy.

Spokesperson of Ethiopia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Dina Mufti (Amb) responding to questions concerning the Israeli government’s intention to bar Ethiopian pilgrimages said, banning people entrance into its territory is common in any sovereign country, fearing these people might not return. However, through time, the problem will be solved in formal diplomatic channels, Dina said.

The news was met with criticism both from Israeli and Ethiopian tour operators.

Israel Incoming Tour Operators Association said it was “severely discriminatory.”

Nahom Admasu is a member of the Talak Ethiopian Tour operators association based in Ethiopia. For tour operators like him, the decision by the Israeli government is an additional hit and a concern for Ethiopian tour operators, who are dealing in a sector that is highly weakened by the elongated northern Ethiopia conflict.

“Israel is an area many Ethiopian Christians excitedly aspire to visit in their lifetime,” said Nahom.

However, Nahom prefers to refrain from giving further comments on the issue and rather mentioned his hope and expectation that it will be solved through diplomatic means.

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