Christians in the Gaza Strip have yet to receive any permits from Israel to travel to Jerusalem and worship at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where Jesus is held to have been crucified and resurrected, church leaders have said. Israel, which has said that it will only issue permits this year to to Gazan Christians aged at least 55, tightly restricts movements out of the Gaza Strip, territory which is controlled by Hamas.
The Israeli military-run authority which operates in the West Bank defended its policy to restrict access, saying that many Palestinians had stayed on illegally in the past. ‘Israel is a sovereign state and it has the right to decide who will enter its gates. No foreign residents have an inherent right to enter Israel, including Palestinian residents of the Gaza Strip,’ said a Civil Administration (COGAT) spokesman, without saying whether permits would be issued this year.
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, which is under an ongoing Israeli blockade, has only around 1,000 Christians – most of them Greek Orthodox – among a population of 2 million in the narrow coastal strip.
Father Ibrahim Shomali, chancellor of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, said that worshippers should not even be required to gain permits from Israel.
‘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.
‘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 the Jewish festival of Passover. Some also fear that Israel has been emboldened by the recent decision by Donald Trump unilaterally and controversially to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
‘[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 there could be further Israeli pressure on Christian authorities from the Israeli authorities, because ‘they think that they have a free hand’.
In February, the church leaders at the Holy Sepulchre took the rare decision dramatically to close the iconic church, in protest at a new Israeli tax policy and a proposed land expropriation law.
In Gaza, George Antone of the Latin Patriarchate said that Israel last year allowed nearly 570 Christians in total out of Gaza.
‘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 this year, when Palestinians and pilgrims from around the world will attend the ceremony of the Holy Fire.
Photo (c) Reuters