AP Photo/Mohammed Ballas

Palestinian Christians ‘bitter and left out’ of Easter celebrations

The West Bank and Gaza faithful bemoan Israeli restrictions they say deny them their right to worship in Jerusalem

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Seeking comfort in prayer, hundreds of Palestinians gathered at the Greek Catholic Church in Ramallah's Old City to solemnly commemorate Good Friday, during a long weekend that marks when Jesus is believed to have been crucified, buried and resurrected more than 2,000 years ago.

During what's known as the "funeral" procession, Palestinian Christians re-enacted the burial of Jesus, along with a lengthy ritual of prayer, Gospel recitations and hymn singing. Later, the Catholic congregation joined Greek Orthodox worshippers from a nearby church. Together, and with a choir and marching band of a local scout troop, they completed a circuit around the Orthodox church holding a shrine symbolizing Jesus' casket.

This year, both Orthodox and Catholic churches — which normally mark Easter at different times — celebrated the holiday the same week; also coinciding with the Jewish Passover.

The sermon drew hundreds more as night fell, but not everyone was content to be celebrating far from Jerusalem, where other Christians, including many from around the world, converged upon the Holy City to mark the holy occasion.

"It is not fair," said Rand Tawasha, a 21-year-old student from Birzeit University, near Ramallah, referring to Israeli restrictions on movement that often prohibit Christians' access to holy sites in nearby Jerusalem. The Holy City has been out of bounds for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip since 1967, when Israel defied international law to occupy and effectively annex East Jerusalem, home to the city’s most sacred sites. Today, Palestinians’ only means to reach the city is through a special permit issued by Israeli authorities.

Tawasha is the only one in a family of five who received a permit this Easter season. "Having access to the Holy City or to churches there especially at this time of year is our normal right as Palestinians," she said. "It should not be associated with anything political."

This reality had drawn similar sentiments from official clergy. "It is very painful to see people coming from the whole world, from places [as far as] Japan, and they can easily reach the holy sites while our people and Christians from Iraq, Jordan and other [Arab] countries cannot," Fouad Twal, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, told journalists in the lead-up to Easter celebrations.

Restrictions on Palestinian movement were tightened further after Israel first started erecting a separation barrier in 2002 — mostly inside Palestinian territory — citing security needs. However, only about 20 percent of the structure, made of concrete slabs and fences, follows the internationally recognized border between Israel and the West Bank known as the Green Line. This effectively barred Palestinians, from all different religious backgrounds, from entering Jerusalem without Israeli permission.

Israel issues some permits to both Christians and Muslims during religious holidays, but this can be a fraught, bureaucratic process, making such authorizations difficult to come by. They are mostly given to older, married Palestinians; and Christians have to apply through their churches and parishes. Furthermore, the number of permits issued are not always reflective of the population, and do not always get issued on time.

This year, some 17,000 permits were issued to Christians inside the West Bank, and 600 in the Gaza Strip, according to the Coordinator of Government Affairs in the Territories (COGAT), Israel's defense ministry arm that deals with Palestinian civilian issues.

For many in the coastal enclave, Jerusalem is often thought of as an impossibly far-away destination, despite it being only some 50 miles away. "In the past 10 years, I have not been issued a permit for the Christian holidays," said a Gaza-based mother of three, who declined to give her name for fear that Israel would not grant her a work, medical or religious permit in the future.

The Jerusalem Municipality and Coordinator of Government Affairs in the Territories did not respond for requests for comment before publication.

Some of those who received permits this year still did not make it to Jerusalem to attend festivities for the holiest season in the Christian calendar since the rest of their family members were not granted them. "I feel bitter and left out," the Gaza-based mother said. "Many members of my family who are older managed to go. My husband, who is 36, received one but refused to leave me and the children behind."

This year, permits for Gaza's Christians were issued only to those who are younger than 16 and older than 35. Samer Shahin, also from Gaza City, said he and his 7-year-old twins received permits; his wife, didn't. "We have been denied the joys of Easter in Jerusalem," he said.

For many Christians, Easter is hailed as a time for renewal and revival, said Jamal Khader of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, but revival can be difficult when the number of Palestinian Christians is dwindling every year due to restrictive measures.

"We are noticing less Christian locals this year and large numbers of tourists, in addition to the even larger number of Israeli soldiers around the Christian sites, especially the Church of the Holy Sepulcher," Father Khader said. The church, built on what's believed to be the site where Jesus was crucified and resurrected, is one of Christianity's holiest sites.

"The permit system imposed by the Israeli authorities effectively controls the freedom of worship," Father Khader added. "It controls who can come to Jerusalem and in what numbers." Even those with permits might not be able to attend the festivities, he explained, saying there is a strict closure imposed on the Old City.

As part of the annual Easter processions, Christians walk the Via Dolorosa, or the "Way of Sorrows" — the path Jesus was forced to take to his crucifixion. For some, this walk — which is marked by 14 stations or stops — takes on a whole different meaning.

"The [path] resonates especially with Palestinian Christians," said Nora Carmi of Kairos, a Palestinian Christian activist movement. "The first station is the 'Nakba' or when the world decided not to recognize us as a people with a right to live on our land with freedom." The "Nakba," Arabic for catastrophe, refers to when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were driven out of their homes in 1948 by Zionist forces seeking to create the state of Israel in the land of historical Palestine. 

In 1944, there were some 30,000 Christians living in Jerusalem's Old City, according to figures provided by the Palestine Liberation Organization's Negotiations Support Unit. Today that number does not exceed 11,000. These families are part of the 52,000 Christians living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip — which comprise only about 1.3 percent of the total population.

As access to holy sites becomes increasingly difficult, this year East Jerusalem residents and church groups filed a petition with Israel's High Court to ask authorities to ease the restrictions imposed upon them, such as roadblocks and barricades which Israel says are erected for the safety of pilgrims.

Israeli Police spokeswoman Luba Samri told Al Jazeera, "The police doesn’t discriminate between foreigners and local residents. We are talking here about numbers, the police regulate this for the safety of people whether its local residents or foreigners."

The restrictions are not limited to Easter or other Christian holidays, but reflect a policy that contributes to declining Christian numbers, said former Palestinian ambassador Hind Khoury. "An Israeli identity is being imposed on the city that doesn't include Islamic and Christian elements," she said. "Israel is trying to politicize religion and to impose its legitimacy on all the Palestinian territories, especially Jerusalem, which represents the crux of the conflict."

Atallah Hanna, the Greek Orthodox Archbishop of Sebastia, an ancient village in the northern West Bank, echoed Ambassador Khoury's sentiments: "The [Israeli] occupation measures do not differentiate between Muslims and Christians, and between church and mosque. We are all targeted and we are all oppressed."

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