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Israel’s Coronavirus Entry Ban Exempts ‘Jewish Tourism,’ Angering Disappointed Christmas Pilgrims

Israel’s Coronavirus Entry Ban Exempts ‘Jewish Tourism,’ Angering Disappointed Christmas Pilgrims

Saudi Arabia says foreign Muslims ages 12 and up may enter kingdom for umrah pilgrimage

Israel’s cabinet voted Wednesday to approve keeping the country’s borders closed for another week, until December 29, in order to prevent the spread of the omicron variant of the coronavirus. With this extension, the ban will be in effect for at least one month.

The ban has seriously harmed the travel industry, which had just started to rebound after nearly two years of a global pandemic when the country’s borders were again open to tourists in early November.

Despite the ban, reports have surfaced that exemptions will be available for “Jewish tourism,” including Taglit-Birthright Israel, free 10-day trips designed to connect Jewish young people to Israel, which usually brings hundreds of young people to Israel in December, when college students are on winter break. Birthright participants will be required to quarantine for three days and have two negative COVID-19 tests in order to travel throughout the country. These are the same requirements that Israeli citizens who travel outside of the country must adhere to.

The decision to exempt Jewish tourism from the ban has angered Christian groups and officials that had planned to spend the Christmas holiday in Israel, Haaretz reported. Christian leaders have protested the “discrimination” at the height of the “pilgrimage season,” Haaretz reported.

The Associated Press quoted an unnamed official with the Catholic Church who said that the church, along with other denominations, has appealed to Israel’s Tourism Ministry to allow Christian pilgrims to enter and visit holy sites in the country for Christmas.

Wadie Abunassar, adviser and media spokesperson of the Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries of the Holy Land, and honorary consul of Spain in Haifa, in response to the exception for Birthright trips, said in a tweet: “Discrimination is not accepted at all. No justification to allow non-Israeli Jews in the country while banning others! The Israeli government are requested to have equal entry criteria on the basis of health realities regardless to religions, ethnicities!”

Israel’s Foreign Ministry said on Thursday that exemptions have been granted that are unrelated to religion and ethnicity and that permits have been issued to allow some priests in to the country for Christmas, The Times of Israel reported.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia, which detected its first case of the omicron variant on December 1, on Wednesday announced that it would allow foreign pilgrims age 12 years and older to enter the kingdom and perform the Islamic umrah pilgrimage to Mecca; an earlier decision would have allowed only those ages 18 to 50 to enter the country for the pilgrimage. Unlike the hajj, which can only be undertaken during the last month of the Islamic calendar, the umrah can be performed at any time. The pilgrims will be required to register their proof of vaccination status on the appropriate app and then will receive their umrah visa.

An umrah visa is free and is only valid for two weeks. Visa applicants who have non-Muslim names must submit certificates from a mosque or an Islamic center stating that they are Muslim. Women and children must be accompanied by a husband, father, or another male relative.

Here are the latest COVID-19 numbers for the Middle East and North Africa as of 4 pm Greenwich Mean Time (UTC±0) on Thursday.


CountryConfirmed CasesDeathsRecoveredActive Cases
Palestinian Territories435,4734,590426,8903,993
Saudi Arabia550,5428,858539,7931,891
United Arab Emirates743,3522,151738,2602,941


Steven Ganot contributed to this report.

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