Dr. Isabel Apawo Phiri, a renowned African Christian theologian and associate general secretary of the World Council of Churches, was denied entry to Israel earlier this month.
According to the Electronic Intifada, Phiri and other WCC members were traveling to Occupied Palestine to attend a meeting of the Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel, or EAPPI. Of the group, Phiri alone was denied entry and forced to leave the country. The reason cited by Israeli authorities was her “pro-BDS activities,” according to The Guardian in a story that quotes two Israeli officials, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri and Gilad Erdan, Minister of Public Security.
“The place of the boycotters is outside the country’s borders and we shall continue to do everything possible to prevent them from entering our country,” Erdan is quoted as saying.
A native of Malawi, Phiri holds a masters degree in religious education from the University of Lancaster in England, and a PhD in religious studies from the University of Cape Town, South Africa. Prior to her appointment to the WCC, she was a professor of African Theology and dean of the School of Religion, Philosophy and Classics and director at the Centre for Constructive Theology at the University of KwaZulu Natal, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. She has also served as editor of the Journal of Gender and Religion in Africa, and you can go here to access a short video of her discussing violence against women.
A statement put out by the WCC says Phiri was “apprehended, interrogated and deported from Ben Gurion International Airport.” She was reportedly the only African member of the delegation–and the only one denied entry to Israel–a fact which led WCC General Secretary Olav Fykse Tveit to suggest that racism may have been a motivation in the decision. Tveit described the decision to block her from the country as “patently unjust and discriminatory.”
“The singling out of Apawo Phiri fits in with Israel’s racism against Africans,” a statement on Phiri’s detention posted on the BDS South Africa website reads in part. The organization adds:
The human rights and Palestine solidarity organization BDS South Africa joins the WCC in condemning the Israeli Government’s denial of entry to Dr Isabela Apawo Phiri and those wanting to visit the Palestinian territories (including the holy towns of Bethlehem and Jerusalem). We join the National Coalition 4 Palestine (NC4P) in demanding that the South African Government investigates the issue of South Africans, particularly church members, being denied entry to Palestine.
In the last two years alone more than 15 South Africans have been deported by Israel. In the past Israel has also denied Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Higher Education Minister Dr Blade Nzimande, Minister Thulas Nxesi and various other high profile South Africans entry into Palestine.
The EAPPI is a program coordinated by the WCC whose mission is “to witness life under occupation, engage with local Palestinians and Israelis pursuing a just peace, [and] to change the international community’s involvement in the conflict, urging them to act against injustice in the region.”
“Granting an entry permit to activists such as Phiri would in effect reinforce the wrongful activities she and her peers are advancing and I have no intention of lending a hand to that,” Interior Minister Deri said in a statement to the media. “I will use any authority at my disposal to avert harm to Israel.”
The Guardian noted that the decision by Israel to bar Phiri from the country is “likely to be controversial because of her profile.”