Israel has sparked a dispute with the Vatican and other Christian institutions by refusing to renew the visas of some members of the clergy and church volunteers. The Vatican's representatives in the Holy Land say it is intolerable that nuns and priests have been detained after their visas expired.

The Roman Catholic Church in the Holy Land says at least 138 Catholic clergy have not had their visas renewed by the Israeli Government. Hundreds of others from other denominations say they are in the same position.

Many of them are Arabs, and are undergoing special security checks. Israeli officials say that is the cause of the delays in processing their requests to extend their visas. But other members of the Christian clergy who are not Arabs have been similarly affected.

A Polish priest was detained by immigration authorities in March as he was traveling to his studies at a university in Tel Aviv. He was later released. In Jerusalem, a nun was removed from her car by Israeli police because she could not produce the proper papers, but she was not detained.

Eli Varon, a top advisor to the Israeli Interior Minister says the government is aware of the problem and the issue is being given serious attention.

?We are aware this has always been a matter of concern for the churches in Israel. We will soon bring this matter to a satisfactory solution,? Mr. Varon.

Mr. Varon gave these assurances after his Minister, Avraham Poraz, issued a request to the Immigration Police not to arrest Christian clergy in Israel, even if they do not possess the required residency documents.

But the Vatican's top diplomat in the Holy Land, Archbishop Pietro Sambi, says that is not good enough. ?The religious personnel feel hurt. It is not enough what we read in the newspaper, that the police will not arrest the religious personnel anymore," he said. "The question is not to arrest them, the question is to put them in a legal situation, granting them the resident visas in Israel. This is the solution.?

The Latin Patriarch, Archbishop Michel Sabbah, the Vatican's highest cleric in the Holy Land, has also commented on the issue.

He told a news conference in Jerusalem this week that the very existence of the Christian community in Israel depends on the right of clergy and volunteers to remain in the country.

?This issue concerns the survival of the churches in Israel because it concerns the staff of the churches, clergy and even lay people who directly work for the churches, which means it an existential question for the churches,? Archbishop Sabbah said.

Some Catholic officials say that Israel's treatment of the Christian clergy is in violation of a 1993 diplomatic accord with the Vatican.

One priest accused the Israeli government of attempting to reduce the numbers of Christians in order to preserve the Jewish character of the State. But Israeli officials dismissed such claims as nonsense, and they note that the minister in charge of this issue, Mr. Poraz, is from an avowedly secular political party.