Israel has deported the head of a Christian organization who had organized heart surgery and other operations for Palestinian children by Israeli doctors.

Jonathan Miles, a United States citizen who founded the Israeli non-profit organization Light to the Nations—now called Shevet Achim—was told he was no longer welcome in the country.

The move has disturbed some Christian groups who had praised Miles for his humanitarian efforts in the midst of a deep conflict.

Miles had been working in conjunction with Save a Child's Heart, a foundation providing free, urgent heart surgery for children in poor and developing nations. He originally came to the Middle East in 1990 as a journalist, before moving to his position with Light to the Nations, in which he traveled back and forth between Israel and the Gaza Strip, transporting sick Palestinian children to Israel.

"We are followers of Jesus, and we wanted to follow his example of love thy neighbor, particularly those who were dying and suffering," he told Ecumenical News International.

The son of a Lutheran pastor, Miles believed that he was a victim of what he described as an "ongoing policy of encouraging visitors, especially those who had lived in Israel for a long time, to leave."

For two years, he lived with his family in Rafah, in the Gaza Strip, but moved to Jerusalem last year, following Israel's repeated military incursions into Gaza.

He facilitated the transfer of Palestinian infants from Gaza to Israeli hospitals and also took otherwise unavailable medicine back to the Gaza.

He also raised money abroad for the cause and set up a system of referrals for newborn Palestinian babies in the West Bank who needed heart surgery in Israel.

While he apparently ran foul of the Israeli authorities, for reasons that many of his colleagues still find unclear, he was supported by Israeli doctors and hospitals, who carried out the surgery for Palestinian children at a fraction of the normal cost.

"One of Jonathan's contributions was the good vibes he created with the Palestinian families whose children we treated," said Israeli cardiologist Akiva Tamir, one of the volunteers in the medical program.

"It takes a lot for parents from Gaza, in an atmosphere so full of hate, to bring us their children to treat. Jonathan really persuaded them that they can trust us."

But the Israeli authorities clearly did not trust Miles. When he arrived last week from a fund-raising trip, he was barred entry, kept in a holding cell and then deported.

The first sign of trouble came in April, when he, his wife, Michelle, and five of their children were asked by the Interior Ministry to leave the country.

The ministry was apparently angered by Miles's application for residency status, which the ministry had repeatedly blocked. The ministry is known for its strong opposition to granting such status to non-Jews.

A committee of the Israeli parliament, which apparently never saw his application, normally decides such issues.

A spokeswoman for the Interior Ministry said that Miles and his family had been asked to leave because they had been living in Israel illegally.

"They wanted a permanent status," she said. "But there is no reason to grant them this. Every one who is here illegally is asked to leave. If he wants to re-enter the country, he has to ask for a visa abroad."

But Miles's attorney, Ezriel Levi, disputed the government's decision.

"This is a humanitarian question," Levi told The Jerusalem Post newspaper. "It is not for Jonathan's sake but for the children he is helping. Perhaps the present interior minister believes that helping sick Palestinian children is not a worthy aim. As a citizen of this country I can only be sorry about that."

Miles said that a Jewish group opposed to Christian missionaries had lodged a protest against his organization with the Israeli Interior Ministry. The protest was kept on file, said Miles, who concedes that it may have done his case some harm.

Miles told ENI his plan was now to try to continue his work from Amman, Jordan, where he is now based, waiting to be reunited with his family.

He said he had written to the Israeli Interior Ministry, agreeing to drop his request for residency and to be based outside the country for a year. He said his only request was to be allowed in on temporary visits to continue helping Palestinian children.

"I want to continue the work we are doing," he said. "All I want is to have access to our volunteers in the Gaza Strip and West Bank."

Copyright © 2002 ENI

Related Elsewhere:

The Jerusalem Post covered this development a few weeks ago.

Shevet Achim's website hasn't been updated for a while, so it has no news about Miles's deportation. Embrace Israel Ministries, however, has updates from Miles, including an item about his deporation.

CBN News profiled on Shevet Achim's work in May.