JERUSALEM - The nuns wanted to buy sheets for their orphanage, so they headed to a shopping mall. They were 78 and 56 years old, dressed in the blue and white habits of the Rosary Sisters.
They were venturing into the city with expired Israeli residency permits, a problem not of their making.
Checking their papers, a security guard at the mall's entrance refused to let the sisters in, and an Israeli border police officer armed with an M-16 lined them up against a wall and searched them. They were released two hours later.
Church leaders say the incident this week at the Malha Mall was due not to carelessness on the part of the nuns but to pervasive delays by the Israeli government in granting or renewing residency permits to Christian clergy - delays that officials of the Roman Catholic Church say verge on infringing on religious freedom.
Dozens of Roman Catholic priests, nuns and monks living in Israel are now subject to arrest as they await new residency permits, church officials say. Members of other Christian sects, including Greek and Armenian Orthodox, are facing similar problems.
"They took the elderly sister and put her against a wall and searched her in a very unacceptable way," said Sister Agatha Baharm, the younger of the two nuns who were detained. "I told the police officer that the sister is old and didn't feel well. She has had two heart operations, and she started to tremble."
"They say it's a matter of security and we should wait," said the chancellor of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, Shawki Baterian. "But if this situation continues, I think Israel could rightly be accused of preventing us from trying to practice our faith."
Church officials in Jerusalem and at the Vatican have exchanged letters with Israeli authorities, and both sides said they expect the backlog of pending visa applications to be swiftly resolved.
"It is not by any means a political issue," said Jonathan Peled, a spokesman for Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. "It is simply bureaucratic, technical issues that have to be dealt with." He called the detention of the nuns "silly and unnecessary."
Officials at the Interior Ministry, which oversees immigration and visa issues, said officers have been ordered to take care when dealing with religious figures. "It is our policy to help everybody who comes from the church," said spokeswoman Tova Ellinson. "We are trying to solve this thing. It won't take long. Nobody is going to be arrested from the church."
Church officials could not provide numbers of those affected by the backlog. The Latin Patriarchate said about 50 members of the clergy have expired visas, out of an estimated 500 nuns, 300 monks and 100 Roman Catholic priests in Israel and the West Bank. The Rev. Athanasius Marcora, a Franciscan, put the number higher, saying 40 members of his order lack the required paperwork to legally reside in Israel. The Rosary Sisters said 23 of its members now lack the proper visas.
Their status is a sensitive issue in a country where the landscape is venerated by three religions - Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Israeli officials acknowledge that there is a problem to be resolved, but they blame it on the innocent workings of a notoriously cumbersome bureaucracy.
Church leaders say priests and nuns from Arab countries are having the toughest problems. Marcora, of St. Savior's Monastery in Jerusalem's Old City, said there is a danger of having too few priests who speak Arabic.
Marcora is from Austin, Texas, and has lived in Israel for 11 years. He said he renewed his residency visa without problem two years ago. But he said many Arab priests at his parish are unable to return after leaving for trips abroad. One Syrian priest, he said, did not return to Damascus when his father died, fearing that he would not be allowed back.
"The mission of the church is in jeopardy without the presence of Arab Catholics," Marcora said. "The fact is that these people are prevented from coming here, or they can't stay here once they arrive."
The Rosary Sisters nuns are both of Arab descent. Sister Agatha is an Israeli-Arab who was born in Nazareth. The elder nun, Sister Hani Akiki, is from Lebanon but has lived in Israel for 45 years. Her visa renewal has been delayed for three years, Sister Agatha said, with no reason given. Both sisters have documents from the Interior Ministry explaining that their visas are pending.
Two weeks ago, police officers detained a Franciscan monk from St. Peter's Church in Jaffa after he pulled out his expired visa. Israeli foreign ministry officials intervened and prevented his deportation. The monk, through a church official, declined to comment.