Christians in the Holy Land and abroad will be deprived of altar wine from Bethlehem this Christmas because Israeli soldiers are refusing to allow lorries carrying the wine to enter Israel.
The SOS has been issued by the UK importer of Cremisan wine, which is made by the Salesians of Don Bosco in a suburb of Bethlehem in the Occupied Territories of the West Bank. The Salesians have been producing wines for the past 125 years as a means of supporting their pastoral and educational work among the poor of Bethlehem. They make not just altar wine, but Cabernet, Reisling, and local grape varieties, with a combined production of about 200,000 bottles a year. The wine is famous in the region -- as anyone who has stayed in a Christian establishment in the Holy Land knows.
But for the last five weeks Israeli soldiers at the Hebron checkpoint have refused to let the wine pass, saying it constitutes “a security risk" -- presumably because it comes from the West Bank. This means that not only Christian churches, but also pilgrim houses, hotels and restaurants in Jerusalem, Nazareth and other parts of Israel will be without Cremisan wine this Christmas.
Because the wine is shipped from the Israeli port of Haifa, the sudden embargo has also made it impossible for the wine to be exported to church customers in Europe. It means that a red communion wine specially produced by Cremisan for Anglican churches (altar wine for Catholics is usually white) will not now reach them.
As Bishop William Kenney, an auxiliary of Birmingham (England) and a member of the Holy Land Co-ordination Group of Catholic Bishops, puts it: “This is a serious matter of the Palestinians being refused access to international markets for products, not just altar wine. This will lead to more hardship and suffering for the ordinary people of Palestine as Christmas approaches.”
UK churches choose Cremisan wine in part because its proceeds support Palestinian Christians. Some 30 families depend on the winery, as do hundreds of Palestinians both Christian and Muslim for whom the bakery and technical school in Bethlehem are a lifeline.
The embargo is the most serious in a series of obstacles faced by the winery this year, described by Cremisan’s director, Fr Franco Ronzanni, in this Spanish report. Supplies of glass bottles have been held up as well as several truckloads of freshly-harvested grapes – rendering them useless for wine production. Lorries to and from Cremisan have been forced to travel south to the checkpoint at Hebron, so that a journey to Jerusalem of 10 minutes has become a journey of at least 6 hours.
The Salesians also face the prospect of the Israeli Separation Wall slicing through their vineyards, in order to enable an illegal Jewish settlement to end up on the Jerusalem side of the wall. (I wrote in America earlier this year about the effect of the wall on Bethlehem.) Once completed, it will sever Cremisan from the Bethlehem villages where the workers live, allowing entry to the winery only through a new checkpoint.
But the impromptu embargo is the greatest threat of all. If it is unable to supply its customers in Jerusalem and Nazareth, the Cremisan winery will die -- and with it another vital element of the Christian presence in the Holy Land.