Palestinian Christians living in the Gaza Strip are being denied access to Jerusalem by Israel during Holy Week and the Easter weekend. Worship at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in Jerusalem's Old City and held to be the most sacred ground in Christianity, carries special significance during the Easter period.
Christian pilgrims from across the globe visit the Church at Easter, where they believe that Jesus was crucified, buried and rose from the dead. However, Palestinian Christians from Gaza are yet to receive any travel permits from Israel, church leaders have complained.
Christianity Today reported that the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem said church authorities had applied for around 600 travel permits for Gaza Palestinian worshippers, but had not received any. On previous occasions, Israel issued permits to Palestinian Christians over the age of 55 but even this does not seem to be the case this year. The report raises further concerns about the severity of the Israeli-led siege imposed on Gaza, which is now entering its eleventh year.
Church leaders denounced the permit system enforced by Israel that prevents Palestinians moving freely. Father Ibrahim Shomali, chancellor of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, said that worshippers should not be required to gain permits from Israel. "We have to have free access to the Holy Land, free access to our holy places," he insisted. "Of course, we apply, but in reality there must be no applying for permits to come to visit your own places."
Church leaders are said to be fearing more restrictions than usual this year as Easter falls on the same weekend as the start of the Jewish festival of Passover. Some also fear that Israel has been emboldened by the recent unilateral and controversial decision by Donald Trump to recognise Jerusalem as the state's capital.
"[Israel] will close every single checkpoint, and this will be stricter than any other year because of the proclamation of Trump and the effects we got from it, and that we will get from it," Shomali explained.
In the same vein, Youssef Daher, of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Centre, said that there could be further Israeli pressure on the Christian authorities because "they think that they have a free hand."
While Christians in Gaza say that they will not lose hope, it's not certain that the permits will be issued in time. Critics will see this as another example of the intense pressure placed upon Christians living under Israeli occupation. In February, Christian leaders in Jerusalem closed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in a protest against Israeli policy.