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Easter in Jerusalem: No access for Gaza's Christians

‘We have to have free access to the Holy Land, free access to our holy places,’ said Father Ibrahim Shomali.

    Three days to go before Good Friday, Israel has not issued permits for Gaza Palestinian Christians to travel to Jerusalem to celebrate Easter, Church authorities have said.

    The Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem said church authorities had applied for around 600 permits for Gaza Palestinian worshipers to travel, but had not received any.

    Gaza is under an ongoing Israeli blockade and people’s movements out of the Gaza Strip is tightly restricted by the Israeli military. 

    The Israeli military-run authority that operates in the occupied West Bank defended its policy to deny the applicants access to the city of Jerusalem in the West Bank, and said it would only issue permits to people aged at least 55.

    Holy places

    Father Ibrahim Shomali, chancellor of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, said worshippers should not even be required to get permits.

    “We have to have free access to the Holy Land, free access to our holy places,” he said at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, revered as the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.

    Of course, we apply, but in reality, there must be no applying for permits to come to visit your own places.”

    Church leaders feared more restrictions than usual this year as Easter falls on the same weekend as the start of Passover, a Jewish holiday when Israel boosts security.

    Trump factor 

    Christian leaders said US President Donald Trump’s decision in December to recognize Jerusalem – sacred to Judaism, Christianity and Islam – as Israel’s capital could embolden Israeli authorities’ restrictions to their holy sites.

    “[Israel] will close every single checkpoint, and this will be more strict than any other year because of the proclamation of Trump and the effects we got from it, and that we will get from it,” Shomali said.

    Youssef Daher, of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Centre, said Trump’s decision could lead to further Israel pressure on Christian authorities, because “they think that they have a free hand.”

    In February, Christian leaders took the rare decision to close the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for three days, in protest at a new Israeli tax policy and a proposed land expropriation law.

    Gaza’s Christians 

    Gaza has 1,000 Christians – most of them Greek Orthodox – among a population of 2 million in the narrow coastal strip. The Greek Orthodox authorities were not available to comment on Tuesday.

    In Gaza, George Antone of the Latin Patriarchate said Israel allowed nearly 570 Christians in total out of Gaza last year, and hoped they would make it again this time.

    “So far, there has been no response. I will not lose hope but I will be sad if the permits do not come,” he said.

    Orthodox Christians celebrate Easter a week later, when Palestinians and pilgrims from around the world attend the ceremony of the Holy Fire.

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