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How can Israelis celebrate Passover while denying Palestinian Christians the right to travel?

Roman Catholic clergy hold candles as they circle the edicule during the Holy Thursday (Maundy Thursday) Easter procession at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City on 18 April 2019 [GALI TIBBON/AFP/Getty Images]

One of the greatest religious stories shared by Jews, Christians and Muslims is the Exodus of Moses and the children of Israel from bondage in Egypt more than 3,000 years ago. This weekend the story will be recounted and reflected upon in Jewish households around the world as families come together for the traditional Passover meal.

This annual religious festival frequently coincides with the Christian festival of Easter, when the world’s Christians congregate in their churches to remember what they believe to have been the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. A joyous occasion, it will be celebrated by Christians everywhere.

For most of the past 2,000 years, Palestinian Christians have flocked to Jerusalem and even Bethlehem at Easter. This year, not for the first time though, Palestinian Christians living in the besieged Gaza Strip will not be able to make their pilgrimage. That particular flock are being refused travel permits by the heartless Israeli occupation authorities.

So while Israeli Jews will be recalling the enduring cry of Moses to “Let my people go” during Passover, spare a thought for the Palestinian Christians in Gaza who stand among many Christians persecuted in the Middle East today.

READ: Israel bans Gaza Christians from going to Jerusalem, Bethlehem for Easter

However, groups such as Christians United for Israel (CUFI) appear to be in denial that this flock even exists. “The Middle East is one of the most dangerous places for Christians to live,” it claims on its website. “The ancient Christian communities in that region have been decimated by terrorism and persecution. Israel is the only safe place for Christians in the Middle East.”

I contacted CUFI — the largest pro-Israel grassroots organisation in America — for a comment but at the time of writing nobody had responded. The CUFI website, meanwhile, boasts that it “strives to act as a defensive shield against anti-Israel lies, boycotts, bad theology and political threats that seek to delegitimise Israel’s existence and weaken the close relationship between Israel and the United States.”

Scouts' bands parade in front of Al Esbat Gate of the Jerusalem's Old City during 'Palm Sunday' celebrations in Jerusalem on April 14, 2019. [Faiz Abu Rmeleh - Anadolu Agency]

Scouts’ bands parade in front of Al Esbat Gate of the Jerusalem’s Old City during ‘Palm Sunday’ celebrations in Jerusalem on April 14, 2019. [Faiz Abu Rmeleh – Anadolu Agency]

That pro-Israel, rather than pro-Christian, lobby group is not alone in ignoring Palestinian Christians and their plight under the Israeli occupation of their land. Persecuted Christians in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East are the focus of international solidarity from Christian leaders including Roman Catholic Pope Francis and the Church of England’s Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, as well as the head of the Anglican Church, Queen Elizabeth II — “Defender of the Faith” — but all remain silent about the plight of the Palestinian Christians, the heirs of the original Christian community in the Holy Land.

While Israel has allowed 200 Palestinian Christians aged 55 and over from Gaza to travel to neighbouring Jordan, those who want to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in occupied Jerusalem have been denied travel permits. They can’t even go to the Church of the Nativity in the occupied West Bank city of Bethlehem.

READ: Israel warns citizens against travel to Egypt’s Sinai during Passover

The Israeli-based NGO Gisha, whose name means both “access” and “approach”, was established in 2005 to protect the freedom of movement of all Palestinians, especially those in Gaza. Such freedom is supposed to be guaranteed by international and Israeli law. “This is a flagrant violation of the freedom of movement, freedom of worship and freedom of enjoying family life for the Christians in Gaza,” insisted Gisha when asked about the restrictions, describing them as an example of a “wider Israeli racist policy.”

What is happening to Palestinian Christians this Easter is a snapshot of the realities of life for all Palestinians ever since the start of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967. The Israel Defence Forces have instituted a complex and vindictive set of policies and practices to control the movement of the 4.5 million Palestinians who live there. Basic human rights are abused, including the right to life, the right to access medical care, the right to education, the right to livelihood, the right to family unity and the right to religious freedom. It is something that Moses and the Israelites would no doubt recognise, as oppression hasn’t really changed in essence over the millennia.

Indeed, the cry of Moses to “Let my people go” has resonated across the centuries, and was used by the charismatic African American Baptist Minister Dr Martin Luther King in his electrifying speech in Tennessee in April 1968 just 24 hours before he was assassinated. Many other civil rights and liberation movements have also taken up the cry. South African government minister Sibusiso Ndebele even likened former President Nelson Mandela to Moses when he heard of his death: “God gave South Africa a… Moses to lead and liberate his people from apartheid and oppression.”

We heard from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Israel is a state for Jews alone, and that they alone have the right of self-determination, and we know that his claim not only flies in the face of international law but also Israel’s own Declaration of Independence. How, then, can he in all honesty deny Palestinian Christians living under Israeli occupation — for Israel is still the occupying power in the Gaza Strip — the right to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem at this, the holiest time of the year for them? Perhaps that is something else that he should ponder as he and his fellow Jews celebrate the Passover this weekend. To commemorate historic freedom from bondage and oppression while keeping people oppressed and enclosed in an open prison is hypocrisy of the worst kind.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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