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WEST BANK: Palestinian Christians denied access to holy places in Jerusalem during Easter

April 16, 2011 |  8:42 am

As Christians get ready to celebrate Easter, Palestinian Christians living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are envious of fellow Christians from all over the world who are able to visit Jerusalem’s holy Christian sites and worship freely while they cannot.

Since Israel cut off East Jerusalem from the rest of the occupied Palestinian territories in the early 1990s, Palestinian residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip have been required to get Israeli army permission before they can enter Jerusalem.

The situation worsened since the turn of the century and restrictions got tighter after a 20-foot concrete wall was built all around East Jerusalem barring both Muslim and Christian Palestinians from reaching their holy sites in Jerusalem and its Old City.

“For Christians, Holy Week in Jerusalem has a special spiritual connection,” said a statement issued by the Christian community in the West Bank. “The Old City, its gates and roads, the Mount of Olives, Via Dolorosa and the Holy Sepulchre Church, where pilgrims from all over the world journey to, are equally important to the Palestinian Christians of Gaza and the West Bank, who want to join their Jerusalemite Christian brethren in the liturgical events leading to the resurrection, the holiest celebration in Christianity.”

But West Bank and Gaza Christians reaching Jerusalem even during holidays has become a privilege, rather than a spiritual right. To get to Jerusalem, any Palestinian resident of the West Bank or Gaza of any age or religion has first to get a permit issued by the Israeli military government.

These permits do not come easily. They are usually issued to sick people trying to get treatment in Jerusalem or Israeli hospitals, or to businesspeople. Often they are given to workers because Israel can use the cheap West Bank and Gaza labor force. But for people who want to visit family members living in East Jerusalem or take a tour of the Old City or pray at their holy sites, permits become a scarcity.

“In every country that respects and implements freedom of worship, worshipers of different faiths live their faith and express their prayers without restrictions from the governing authorities,” said the Christians' statement. “In Jerusalem, and for the past decade, this has not been the case. The occupying power is denying free access to holy places of worship to both Christians and Muslims on several important occasions,” the statement said.

“The local faithful … see that the restrictions made against them are violations of basic human rights and religious freedom as well as a violation of … centuries of religious traditions for the indigenous Christians of this land,” the statement continued.

Though Israel began recently issuing between 2,000 and 3,000 permits for Christians to visit Jerusalem holy sites during Christmas and Easter, the figures remain relatively small compared with the number of Palestinian Christians, and permits are issued only to older married people, not the young and single. Christians also have to apply through their churches to get the permit, a process Christians say is done on a first-come first-served basis.

“The permit system instated by Israel is in obvious violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international covenants and treaties to which Israel is a signatory,” said the Christian community. “Regardless of the number of people from the local congregation allowed to participate in the celebrations, we reject the imposition of a permit/quota system to access our churches.”

Unfortunately for Palestinian Christians, Easter coincides with the Jewish Passover holiday. Israel usually imposes a closure on the occupied territories during Jewish holidays, which means permits are automatically canceled and people with permits will not be able to cross checkpoints into East Jerusalem, which Israel considers part of its territory since it annexed it after its occupation in June 1967.

-- Maher Abukhater in Ramallah, West Bank

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