In the Palestinian Christian village of Iqrit, only the church was left standing. On Christmas Eve 1951, Israeli troops destroyed the village. The houses were turned to rubble and the residents scattered.
“Choosing Christmas Eve to demolish our village holds religious connotations; they wanted to insinuate that this land is for the Jews only,” said Father Suhail Khoury, the priest of the church.
The village was just one of the 418 Palestinian villages that were demolished and whose residents were forced to move during and following the 1948 war, which resulted in the establishment of the Israeli State.
Today, from the rubble, signs of life can be seen. The village of Iqrit is being resurrected. The young descendants of the villagers returned to the lands of their fathers and grandfathers and are breathing life into the decay. In August last year, they began camping out in the church, making their right of return a reality.
Exactly sixty three years after the village was destroyed, Christmas Eve is upon us again. Like the scattered villagers of Iqrit, who, decades after are still attempting to return to their land, the plight of the Palestinian Christians is ongoing.
As the festive season arrives, the Holy Land is seeing its usual influx of tourists. After visiting the Christian sites of Jerusalem, it is almost certain they will make a passing visit to the town of Bethlehem and marvel at the Nativity Church, the birthplace of Jesus, according to the Bible.
From the windows of their tourist buses it is unlikely that they will notice the Wall which has sliced into Bethlehem. The wall separates it from Jerusalem, home to some of the most important religious sites for both Christians and Muslims, the two most prominent religions in Palestine.
This wall means that the majority of Palestinian Christians who reside in the birthplace of Jesus, are unable to visit the Holy Sepulchre, one of the holiest sites in Christianity at one of the holiest times in their calendar, even though it lies just 7 km away. In order to do so they must be granted a special permit by the Israeli government.
The same can be said for the Palestinian Muslim population of the occupied West Bank beyond the wall, whose third holiest site, Al-Aqsa Mosque, also lies in Jerusalem.
The parishioners of churches in the West Bank and the Gaza strip have been busy in recent months applying for permits for their congregations to visit the holy sites in Jerusalem.
In a statement, the Israel Defence Forces said, “During the holiday season the IDF will facilitate the visit of an unlimited number of Christian Palestinians from Judea and Samaria to Israel. Also, at the request of the Palestinian Authority, Israel will authorise 200 special holiday permits for Palestinians who reside abroad, to visit Judea and Samaria. Approximately 500 Palestinian Christians from Gaza, under the age of 16 and above 35, will be eligible to visit Israel and Judea and Samaria in order to enjoy and participate in the holiday festivities.”
Lt. Col. Eyal Zeevi, Head of Bethlehem District Coordination Office added, “During the holiday season Israel is making a significant effort to safeguard freedom of religion in the area, facilitate participation in religious ceremonies and ensure that Christians in the region enjoy the holiday spirit.”
Father Johnny Abu Khalil, a Catholic priest from Nablus, recounts the challenges faced by Palestinian Christians. “One should not be misled by the issue of permits. The question is not how many permits Palestinians are given every Easter or Christmas, but why we should have to apply for them at all simply in order to visit our own city and holy places that we have prayed at for centuries. This situation is turning our religious sites into museums to be visited by foreigners rather than places of worship for a vibrant local community that has been the caretaker of Christian sites, preserving them for centuries.”
According to +972, Hanan Ashrawi of the PLO commented, “The fact that so many Palestinian Christian communities are denied their simple human right to worship freely in their own capital city is unacceptable,”
PA Minister of Tourism Rula Maaya told Ma’an News that Israel refused entry to five tourism ministers who planned to visit Palestine from various Arab States. The five were expected to start arriving on Monday in order to attend Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem. In contrast, 75,000 tourists are expected to come to the Holy Land through Israel for the Christmas period alone, 25,000 of them pilgrims.
As a result of the Israeli occupation, the Christian population in Palestine is diminishing. If we are to take the example of Bethlehem, from an historic high of 80 per cent in 1947, Christians now make up only around 20 per cent of the population. The past decade alone has seen over 10 per cent of Christians leaving their homeland.
While the Palestine-Israel conflict is often perceived as a conflict between Muslims and Jews, frequently overlooked is the fact that Palestine was the birthplace of Christianity, and that Palestinians are both Muslims and Christians, united by the hardships they face under occupation.