Israel announced it will issue permits for Christians in the Gaza Strip to visit Bethlehem, Jerusalem and the West Bank for Christmas after initially saying it would not — raising the ire of church officials and human rights groups across the Holy Land.
Catholic leaders appealed to the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) to reverse a previous statement that it would bar Gaza’s Christians from sites in Israel and the West Bank for the holiday.
“Just as it is permitted for nations from all over the world to enter Bethlehem to celebrate Christmas, it is also the right of Christians from Gaza to celebrate the birth of Jesus the messiah in the place of his birth,” they said. “We call on Israeli authorities to allow, without further delay, Christians from Gaza to go to Bethlehem to celebrate the holiday.”
Israel traditionally grants permits to Christians to travel to Jerusalem and the West Bank during Christmas and Easter. Just over 1,000 Christians live among 2 million Muslims in the Gaza Strip. The majority of them are Greek Orthodox, while some are Catholic and even fewer are evangelical.
Christians look forward to leaving Gaza to celebrate the holidays with family and friends. So church leaders were outraged when a spokesperson for Israel’s military liaison to the Palestinians said Gaza residents would be allowed to leave the Gaza Strip, but would not be allowed to enter Israel or the West Bank.
COGAT reversed that saying it consulted “all the security services” in deciding to issue permits for Gaza Christians. More than 950 Gaza Christians have requested one.
Since Hamas took over the Gaza Strip, Israel carefully scrutinizes movement in and out of Gaza.
Nevertheless, an Israeli human rights group blasted the Israeli flip flop regarding permits this year. And Elias al-Jelda, a Christian activist in Gaza, called on permits to be issued months in advance in the future.
“Everyone should be able to celebrate the holiday in Jerusalem and Bethlehem,” he said. “All people should also be given sufficient time to make plans. Next year, Israel should start reviewing permit applications for the holidays several months ahead of time.”
Living in the shadow of Hamas’ oppressive Islamic regime, the Christian community is dwindling. Open Doors, a human rights group that follows the persecution of Christians, said in a report that “the influence of radical Islamic ideology is rising.”
“In the West Bank they are threatened and put under great pressure, in Gaza their situation is so dangerous that they live their Christian faith in utmost secrecy…., and historical churches have to be diplomatic in their approach towards Muslims.”
An evangelical man was martyred in Gaza City by Hamas militants in 2007. Rami Ayyad was 31 when he was killed for his faith. He left behind a wife and children.
Justus Reid Weiner, an Israeli lawyer who has written extensively on the situation, said the plight of Christian Arabs in Palestinian areas “is being met with nearly total silence by the international community, human rights activists, the media and NGOs.”
“In a society where Arab Christians have no voice and no protection it is no surprise that they are leaving,” he said.