Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 23 May 2019

Barred from travel by Israel, Gaza's shrinking Christian community gathers to mark Easter

Many are angry as Israel has allowed just 200 Gazans to leave the strip but only to Jordan

Members of Gaza's Greek Orthodox Christian community as they arrive for Sunday mass at the Church of Saint Porphyrius in Gaza City on December 23, 2018. Heidi Levine for The National
Members of Gaza's Greek Orthodox Christian community as they arrive for Sunday mass at the Church of Saint Porphyrius in Gaza City on December 23, 2018. Heidi Levine for The National

In the Gaza Strip, the dwindling Christian minority barred from travel by Israel gather to celebrate Easter celebrations under a blockade that has brought about a humanitarian crisis.

For years, the tiny Orthodox minority in the enclave would travel to the occupied West Bank and Jerusalem for several days to celebrate Easter, beginning with the festival of Palm Sunday – the week before Easter to mark Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem – until the Holy Fire ceremony at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

For Gaza’s Christians, it is an opportunity to be reunited with friends and family in Bethlehem and Jerusalem usually out of reach as travel between the geographically separated Palestinian territories is limited.

For the twelfth year in a row, Israel’s blockade is forcing the territory’s ever-decreasing Christian minority to celebrate Easter in confinement. When Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip in 2007, Israel installed an aerial, naval and land blockade on the enclave that led to a socio-economic crisis.

Under the blockade, travel in and out of the strip has been severely restricted. Christians have to petition Israel’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (Cogat) for security permits long in advance in order to permission to attend celebrations in the West Bank and Jerusalem.

Kamel Ayyad, director of public relations of the Orthodox Church in Gaza, told The National that nearly 1,000 applications are made twice a year by Palestinian Christians in Gaza who want to celebrate Christmas and Easter in the West Bank. But he said the number allowed to travel is shrinking.

On Wednesday, Cogat released just 200 permits to Gazan Christians over the age of 55 to travel, but there’s a catch – the permits only allow travel to Jordan through the King Hussein Bridge crossing, and not to Jerusalem or the West Bank. The reason, “security considerations” highlighted by the “defence establishment… [as] the body responsible for determining the conditions [of entry]”.

Gisha – an Israeli human rights organization that provides legal assistance to Gazans applying for permits – say that the quotas are usually “varying and arbitrary.”

The organisation also said that the Israeli body usually cites undisclosed “bureaucratic reasons” for the long delays in issuing the documents and in the past it has released travel permits for holidays that have already passed.

This year’s decision to only allow travel to Jordan has infuriated many Gazan Christians, who see the move as a slap in the face.

“We’re not allowed to step foot into the West Bank for unclear and unnamed ‘security reasons’,” Nizar Tarzi, a 30-year old Palestinian Christian resident of Gaza, told The National. “At the same time, there’s no security concern in allowing us to travel out of the Israeli-controlled Erez border crossing [out of Gaza], into Israel, then to the King Hussein Bridge through the West Bank? This doesn’t make any sense.”

Samir Abu Nussira, another Christian in Gaza, was similarly angry. “Why do they want us to go to Jordan instead of Jerusalem? There’s nothing for us there,” he said. “It sounds more like a one-way ticket out of Gaza. An invitation to abandon our besieged home and go abroad like the many before us.”

Before 2007, more than 3,000 Christians lived in Gaza. But after twelve years under the blockade – punctuated by three wars, frequent armed escalations and scourges of violence – that number has dropped to around 1,000, Mr Ayyad said, as many Gazans have found ways to escape the strip and settled abroad.

“I’m always torn between staying home and suffering unimaginable miseries or moving to exile like my friends and relatives before me,” said Mr Abu Nussira, who leads a scout troop at his Church. “Those shouldn’t be my only choices. I only dream of realising a normal and dignified life without blockade or violence.”

A member of Gaza's Greek Orthodox Christian community arrives early for Sunday mass at the Church of Saint Porphyrius in Gaza City on December 23, 2018. The church dates to the 12th Century. Photo by Heidi Levine for The National
A member of Gaza's Greek Orthodox Christian community arrives early for Sunday mass at the Church of Saint Porphyrius in Gaza City on December 23, 2018. The church dates to the 12th Century. Photo by Heidi Levine for The National

Despite being cut off from the rest of the Christian Palestinian community, those stuck in Gaza go to great lengths to make the Easter holiday special at the strips three churches – the Orthodox Church of Saint Porphyrius, the Gaza Baptist Church for Evangelical and Protestant Christians and the Roman Catholic Holy Family Church.

The Church of Saint Porphyrius, that dates back to the year 425, has a significance for many Muslims and Christians in Gaza as it sheltered thousands of civilians through the Israeli military’s 2014 offensive Protective Edge.

Many Christians unable to travel for Easter attended a Palm Sunday service at the Church of Saint Porphyrius. “It hosts unique celebrations and masses that are indispensable for making the best out of Easter,” Jamil Al Tarzi, a 57-year old Christian attendant at the church, told The National.

“We will always find a way to not let anything ruin our happiness,” said 53-year old Elias Al Jilda, a Gazan Christian activist on the board of the strip’s Arab Orthodox Church. “We will celebrate anywhere we are in order to show the world that our passion for life and the love of our homeland is undefeatable.”

Updated: April 20, 2019 03:03 PM

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