Pilgrims in limbo as Israel shuts borders to Indonesia
Dian Septiari and Marguerite Afra Sapiie
The Jakarta Post
Jakarta-based travel agency operator Asmi Sesawi is at his wits’ end as he struggles to find a way to appease a group of clients relying on his services to get them on a tour of holy sites in Palestinian and Israeli territories, where a decades-long simmering conflict recently escalated.
“This is outrageous, the tickets have all been issued,” he told The Jakarta Poston Wednesday, after local media outlets broke news of a ban by Israel on Indonesian nationals seeking entry into the country.
“Everyone is working hard to ensure the pilgrims from Indonesia can still make the trip.”
Asmi owns Travel Stella Kwarta, one of many travel agencies that offer Indonesian Christians the opportunity to embark on a spiritual journey to holy sites such as the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem, which holds prominent religious significance as the birthplace of Jesus Christ.
He is currently in charge of a group of 30 Christians seeking access to the Promised Land.
His agency usually takes around 20 groups of 30 people to Israel every year. “I don’t know how many people go there every year, but if we’re talking all travel agents in Jakarta, there must be thousands of them,” he said.
The current group, as well as others from the Muslim community with plans to enter Jerusalem, are now in limbo after Israel reportedly barred Indonesian passport holders from entering the country.
The report about Israel’s move was widely circulated among travel agents offering trips to the Middle East on Wednesday.
“On May 29 we received a circular from the Israeli Ministry of Interior that was sent from our partners in Israel, saying that after June 9 Indonesian passport holders will not be able to enter Israel,” a message issued by a travel agent in Surabaya, East Java, said.
The report quoted a notification issued by the Israeli Border Control Department based on an order from the country’s Foreign Ministry.
The statement, which the Post obtained, said further that Indonesian tourists scheduled to enter Israel by June 9 would still be able to enter.
The website of the think tank Middle East Monitor quoted an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman on May 23 as saying that Indonesia had banned Israelis from entering the country in response to “the massacre in Gaza”.
The Indonesian Foreign Ministry’s director of Middle Eastern affairs, Sunarko, said his office was unable to verify the information.
During a separate event, Religious Affairs Minister Lukman Hakim Saefuddin underscored the importance of access to Jerusalem as a holy city for several religions.
“Israel should understand this so the prohibition should not include the holy city because it belongs to citizens of the world with equal rights to visit a holy city,” he said, also insisting the information could not be verified.
Azhar Gazali from Aliyah Perdana Wisata, a Makassar-based travel agent for haj and umrah (minor haj), said the Israeli government would experience losses from their decision, as pilgrims contributed “significant income to the Israeli government”.
He said at least 150 Muslims visited Jerusalem every day to go to Al-Aqsa Mosque.
“Around 25 percent of pilgrims chose to complete their pilgrimages at Aqsa because there is a hadith that says a spiritual journey will be perfected if one visits all three mosques,” he said, referring to the mosques in Mecca, Jerusalem and Egypt. Indonesia does not have any diplomatic relations with Israel. (tjs)
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