Israeli restrictions on Orthodox church crowds in Jerusalem for Easter spark outrage

RAMALLAH: Israeli police will curb the number of worshippers in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem during Orthodox Easter ceremonies on Saturday, drawing anger from church leaders who said they would not cooperate.

The decision to limit access on Saturday to the Holy Fire, the most important Easter celebration for the Eastern Orthodox Church, angered church leaders who see it as part of what they consider long-standing efforts by Israel to restrict the rights and freedoms of the local Christian community.

Complaining of “heavy-handed” measures, they said they would not cooperate with the police.

In a joint statement, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, the Custody of the Holy Land and the Armenian Patriarchate said that they would “continue to uphold” their customs and that the ceremony would be conducted as it has been for two millennia, adding that all those who wished to worship were invited to attend.

In contrast to previous years, when as many as 10,000 worshippers packed into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, only 1,800 will be allowed inside this year, with another 1,200 outside. Additional checkpoints around the Old City will also restrict access to the area around the church.

This year, sensitivity around religious festivals in the Old City has been particularly high, with Ramadan, the Jewish Passover holiday and Easter coinciding at a time of heightened Israeli-Palestinian tensions.

Israel’s revocation of 739 permits granted to Palestinian Christians in the Gaza Strip has also sparked outrage among community members in Gaza and their leaders.

About 1,000 Christians live in the Gaza Strip among its 2 million population. Most of them are Greek Orthodox and celebrate Easter a week after the Western celebration at the Saint Porphyrios Orthodox Church in Jerusalem.

Gaza residents must have a permit from Israeli authorities to leave the enclave, which has been blockaded by Israel and Egypt since 2007.

Gaza houses three churches — the Orthodox church, the Gaza Baptist Church for Evangelical and Protestant Christians and the Roman Catholic Holy Family Church. Most Christians in the Gaza Strip are of the Orthodox denomination.

Samer Tarzi, an Orthodox Christian from Gaza, told Arab News that Israeli authorities informed the community officially that their permits had been rejected.

Israeli authorities contacted the Christians who had previously left Gaza for Jerusalem to celebrate the holiday, asking them to return home by April 13.

“Every Easter brings up an obstacle that the Israelis use as a pretext to cancel permits and preserve Jerusalem. Holy Week is the basis of the Christian faith, and we are forced to spend it, as well as Easter, in Gaza this year,” said Tarzi, who is usually not granted a permit to Jerusalem for unknown reasons, while the rest of his family is.

“This is a holy week for Christians, as whoever prays, fasts, walks the Path of Sorrow, and attends Easter is considered as if he performed a Christian pilgrimage,” Tarzi added.

George Anton from the Catholic Church in Gaza told Arab News that “revoking permits for Orthodox Christians and depriving them of a visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre during Easter means canceling Easter and canceling the pilgrimage of Orthodox Christians this year because the main holiday of the Resurrection is in Jerusalem.”

He added: “In this case, all pilgrimage visits and all religious ceremonies related to the holiday will end, and Orthodox Christians will have to celebrate Easter in the local church in Gaza.”

Gaza Christians are allowed to visit Jerusalem and Bethlehem twice a year, during Christmas and Easter only, and they were denied the visits for nearly two years during COVID-19 restrictions.

Church leaders in Jerusalem and Bethlehem told Arab News that Palestinian Christians were at risk of suffering the repercussions of a rise in right-wing violence, spurred by Israel’s new government.

The Al-Mezan Center for Human Rights based in Gaza has denounced the Israeli move and called on the international community to perform its duty to ensure respect for the rules of international law in the region.

It said that Palestinians “take the trouble to apply for a permit and suffer anxiety and tension while awaiting the response of the Israeli authorities, even though the restriction violates the international humanitarian law that protects the right of people living under occupation to move freely within the occupied territory.”

The Gaza-based Human Rights Center said that Christians from the Gaza Strip “are repeatedly denied access to the holy places in the cities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem, in a...perpetuation of violations of the rights of Palestinians, Muslims and Christians to practice their religious rites.”

The Palestinian presidency said: “We strongly support the demands of the churches in Jerusalem to allow free access smoothly and without problems for Christian pilgrims to attend the Holy Saturday ceremonies.”

It also called on all pilgrims to go to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, participate in the celebration of the Holy Saturday activities, and worship in freedom and peace, urging the international community, especially the US administration, to intervene immediately to stop the Israeli crimes, which affect the freedom of worship of Christian and Muslim believers alike.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, the right-wing Israeli Minister of National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir visited the Old City of Jerusalem in protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to prevent settlers’ incursions into Al-Aqsa Mosque during the last 10 days of Ramadan to avoid any possible escalation.

Ben-Gvir strongly criticized Netanyahu’s decision, calling it a “grave mistake that will lead to further escalation.”

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