As pilgrims from across the world descend on the West Bank city of Bethlehem for Christmas, Palestinian Christians trapped in Gaza are left to pray that they will be allowed to attend this year's celebration.
"Oh Lord of peace, grant our country peace, plant the fruit of love in our hearts and give us freedom … We want to live like everyone else. We pray in this feast that the Palestinian people would reconcile, the siege would be lifted, and we would be able to go to Bethlehem, the birthplace of our Lord."
These were the prayers sent up by Father George, the pastor of the Latin (Roman Catholic) Church in Gaza. Like 3,000 Gazan Christians, Father George is praying for a permit from the Israeli military to leave Gaza and visit Bethlehem.
He also pointed out that this year Christmas marks the grim one-year anniversary of the Israeli war on Gaza – Operation Cast Lead – which began on 27 December. More than 1,400 Palestinians were killed in the three-week offensive.
He said last Christmas season families stayed at home and prayed amid the explosions. "Our children thought the explosions were Christmas celebrations, but unfortunately it was the massacres. Christmas was so sad a year ago, but hope is there this year to celebrate."
Father George added that, while the Christian community may not be able to leave, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem and the Holy Land, Fouad Twal, will visit Gaza this week to celebrate mass.
He also said Christian-Muslim relations in Gaza are strong: "We exchange love and cooperation in everything. We have one cause and one goal. Our feasts are their feasts and our grief is also theirs. We are Palestinians – Muslims and Christians – waiting for Christmas to bring peace and love."
Kamel Ayyad, a spokesman for the Council of the Arab Orthodox Church in Gaza, also said his community wants to go to Bethlehem. "We would love to spend Christmas in Bethlehem and visit the Nativity Church," he said. As a small minority in Gaza, he said it was hard for Christians to feel the same holiday spirit as the Muslim majority.
Ayyad added that for four years the Christmas tree in the Square of the Unknown Soldier has not been lit, which contributed to a lack of festive feeling. He stressed however that Muslims in Gaza respect Christian traditions.
He appealed to the Palestinian Authority to pressure Israel to allow Gazan Christians to travel to Bethlehem.
Majed Tarazi, the leader of the Orthodox scout troupe in Gaza, said that since the beginning of the intifada (uprising) in 2000 Christian celebrations were limited to prayers only.
Tarazi added that Christians were assured by Israeli authorities that they would receive permission to visit Jerusalem and Bethlehem, but as of Monday, there was no word on the promised permits.
Between 1967 and 1991, Palestinians could leave Gaza for any reason without prior permission. Since 1991, however, Gaza residents who want to visit, work, or study in the West Bank or Israel have to apply for a permit from the Israeli military. Since the imposition of a blockade in 2007, only a tiny number of permits have been issued.
A spokesman for Israel's Coordinator for Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), Guy Inbar, said on Monday that Defense Minister Ehud Barak had approved 300 month-long permits for Gazans to visit the West Bank and Israel.
Asked why Gazan Christians had not been notified, Inbar said the permits had only been approved on Sunday.