Israel bars Gaza Christians from Easter worship

Palestinian Christians celebrating the Holy Fire of Easter ceremony in Jerusalem’s Old City on 15 April 2017. 

Faiz Abu Rmeleh ActiveStills

Israel is blocking hundreds of Palestinian Christians in Gaza from praying at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem this Easter.

Meanwhile, Israel is imposing a tight closure on all Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip for nine days around the Jewish Passover holiday.

COGAT, the bureaucratic arm of Israel’s military occupation, stated that only those over the age of 55 will be allowed out of Gaza to visit the church in Jerusalem where Christians believe Jesus was buried and resurrected.

Israeli occupation authorities said they would grant 500 exit permits to Palestinian Christians from Gaza this year, despite the fact that only about 120 meet the age restriction.

“Many will not be able to travel without relatives who are under the age limit,” Israeli newspaper Haaretz stated.

Israel issued 700 permits last Christmas and a similar number last Easter without age restrictions.

But Israel routinely imposes arbitrary age restrictions, such as it did last Ramadan on Palestinian Muslims entering Jerusalem from other areas of the occupied West Bank.

Israel typically announces its holiday permit policies at the last minute, sometimes even after a holiday begins, according to Israeli rights group Gisha, making it difficult for Palestinians to plan travel.

Sometimes Israel grants permits to some family members and not others, forcing families to separate during holidays or abandon a trip altogether.

Collective punishment

In a video on COGAT’s Facebook page earlier this month, Israeli military officer Alaa Halabi demanded that Palestinian Christians who left Gaza using their Christmas permits and never returned do so immediately.

“The situation will make it difficult for us to endorse other steps in favor of the Christian population,” Halabi said.

Gisha called “this address to Gaza’s Christian community, the reduced Easter quota and the age limitation” an open “act of collective punishment against Christians in Gaza.”

Gisha called on Israel “to respect Gaza residents’ fundamental rights to freedom of movement and religious freedom, which includes traveling for prayer at the holy sites and celebrating with family.”

Aida Touma-Sliman, a Palestinian member of the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, also sent a letter to deputy defense minister Eli Ben-Dahan objecting to Israel’s restrictions.

Ben-Dahan has previously stated of Palestinians that “to me, they are like animals, they aren’t human.”

Harassment

Israel’s restrictions on worshippers from Gaza will not be its first harassment of Palestinian Christians this Easter season.

Video taken in Jerusalem on 25 March shows Israeli police attacking Palestinians during a Palm Sunday procession:

Palestinian Orthodox Christians also observe the Holy Fire ceremony the day before Easter – a ritual in which a flame is lit in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and brought to other churches in various Palestinian cities.

Israel restricts Palestinians from moving freely in the occupied West Bank, forcing the Holy Fire to pass through checkpoints to reach its destinations.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre closed its doors last month in protest of a bill that would allow Israel to expropriate land sold by the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches to private developers.

Israel later froze the bill and postponed the collection of taxes from church-owned properties and United Nations institutions in Jerusalem, after hundreds of Palestinians protested the measure.

Passover closure

While cracking down on Palestinians’ Easter worship, Israel is also imposing draconian restrictions on all Palestinians during Passover.

For nine days from Thursday evening until 7 April, Israeli occupation forces are closing all checkpoints in and out of the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip to virtually all Palestinians.

Meanwhile, Jewish groups posted notices on the gates of the al-Aqsa mosque compound this week demanding that Palestinians evacuate the area entirely for the start of Passover on Friday so they can carry out sacrifice rituals.

Israel is also barring bread from being brought into hospitals, effectively forcing everyone using the facilities to observe strict Jewish dietary laws during Passover.

Mossi Raz, one of several lawmakers challenging the ban in court, said, “What democratic state tells people what to eat?”

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These videos amply illustrate the fundamental problem of living in a state specifically constructed without you in mind- except as a target of surveillance and repression. Even a religious procession is fair game for the agents of such an entity. In fact, there is no aspect of life whether public, private or altogether intimate, where the Zionist state is not present in full riot gear. Today we had another glimpse into the machinery of totalitarianism. Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey. He's promptly hijacked and beaten to the ground.

The light unto the nations is actually a bonfire of human values.

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I stood up in church this morning when the pastor called for prayer requests and asked for prayers for the Christians of Palestine and Gaza who are being kept from the old church by the israeli government and for all the people of Palestine who are persecuted by the israeli government. The pastor acknowledged that this was happening and mentioned that nine people were killed. What he failed to acknowledge was the fact that it has been going on for 70 years or more but at least he seemed sympathetic.

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You had the courage to speak out in your church concerning this oppression. I hope others will find it in themselves to do the same. Many Christians don't realize how their coreligionists are treated In Israel and the Occupied Territories.

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Tamara Nassar

Tamara Nassar is an assistant editor at The Electronic Intifada.