Israeli authorities declared on Thursday that Christians living in the Gaza strip would not be permitted to visit holy sites on Christmas.
Gazan Christians, who number roughly 1,000 and are mostly Greek Orthodox, will not be permitted to visit Bethlehem and Jerusalem although some of them will be allowed to leave the tightly-controlled Gaza Strip for outside travel.
An Israeli spokeswoman told Reuters that due to these “security orders,” Gazan Christians are permitted to travel abroad through Israel’s Allenby Bridge border crossing with Jordan, but they are barred from visiting any city in Israel or the West Bank.
Typically, Israel allows Christians in the Gaza strip to visit their holy sites, but they changed their policy this year. In 2018, they allowed Gazan Christians to travel to Nazareth, Jerusalem, Bethlehem and other areas important to worshipers of Christ. They rescinded that policy this year.
Christians are crying foul over the change in policy by the Israelis.
“Every year I pray they will give me a permit so I can celebrate Christmas and see my family,” Randa El-Amash, 50, told Reuters.
“It will be more joyful to celebrate in Bethlehem and in Jerusalem,” she added.
Jerusalem’s Christian leaders are also angered by the decision and have launched an appeal to Israeli leadership to allow Gazan Christians to visit their holy lands during the Christmas season.
“Other people around the world are allowed to travel to Bethlehem. We think Gaza’s Christians should have that right, too,” said Wadie Abu Nassar, who advises Israeli church leaders.
The Christian population in the Gaza strip has been dwindling for decades and may go down as a casualty of the ongoing conflict:
In 2003, Israel began enclosing Bethlehem behind a 23-foot concrete wall. Its purpose was to keep suicide bombers from crossing out of the West Bank and into Israel during the Intifada. But even after the worst unrest settled, the wall kept growing. And Christians living in the town, who have never taken up arms against Israel, are suffering for it.
As Hanan Nasrallah, a Palestinian employee of the Catholic Relief Services, put it: “The separation wall… cuts family from each other. People get humiliated at checkpoints. People do not have many opportunities to improve their living standards. So, therefore, Christians who can afford to, are trying to leave this country.”
It’s not just families that are being split up, either. The wall also runs through the neighbouring village of Beit Jala, which is 80 percent Christian. Upon completion, it will cut off a Salesian monastery from its sister-convent and the rest of the local Christian community. The plight of Beit Jala’s Christians prompted Cardinal Vincent Nichols to write a letter to William Hague in 2012, asking him to appeal to Tel Aviv directly.
And this doesn’t even touch on those Palestinian Christians displaced from their historic homes by encroaching settlements, or those terrorised by “price tag attacks” carried out by radical Israeli nationalists. These are not acts of the Israeli government, though it is the government’s responsibility – both morally and under international law – to respect the rights of Palestinians, whatever their religion.
Israel claims the restriction is occurring due to security concerns, and they point to past instances in which Palestinians have stayed in Israel illegally after their short term permits expire.
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