Thousands of Christians from across the globe are flocking to Jerusalem to follow the footsteps of Jesus during the Easter festivities. But while pilgrims from Africa, Asia, the US and Europe can easily spend the most important Christian holiday in the historic city, Christian Palestinians living only five to 15 miles away cannot. According to Palestinian priests, the number of permits available have been greatly reduced for this holiday.
Christian pilgrims marked Palm Sunday, March 24, by dancing and singing songs of worship in a long procession from the top of the Mount of Olives down to the Old City. Among them were also Palestinian congregations carrying banners with the messages: "Ramallah — 15 kilometers from Jerusalem," "Beit Sahour — 9 kilometers from Jerusalem" and even one holding a picture of the permit Palestinians must obtain to access Jerusalem. Their aim was to spread awareness of how close the Palestinian Christian parishes in the West Bank are to the Holy City, though most are not allowed to go there.
In a news release on March 24, Hanan Ashrawi of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) expressed frustration that some parishes had received only 30% to 40% of the permits they had requested.
“There should not even be a question of needing permits to visit one’s own city,” she said: “East Jerusalem is the occupied capital of the Palestinian people and freedom of worship is a basic human right for all of our Christian and Muslim citizens, a right which is being systematically and increasingly denied by a foreign occupying force.”
According to the Catholic News Service, the Israeli government said it had dismissed only 192 of the 19,000 requests it had received, citing security reasons.
Ashraf Khatib, also from the PLO, said that he was certain of the decrease in permits, as he himself had taken part of the Palm Sunday procession both this year and last year.
“Last year we had buses from all the parishes, around 17 to 18. This year only eight buses came. Some places, like Jenin, did not get any permits and while we had four buses last year from Bethlehem, there was only one this year,” he said. But according to Khatib, it is difficult to count on the number of permits given, as there is a policy of issuing permits to only some family members, thereby preventing the whole family from going.
Abeer, a Palestinian Orthodox Christian, is very familiar with the unpredictable pattern of obtaining permits.
“This year only my eldest son [of 17 years] got a permit — me, my husband, our other son and my parents didn’t,” Abeer told Al-Monitor in Ramallah, adding: “What threat are my parents to Israel?”
Abeer explained her family also wanted to go to Jerusalem for Christmas, but her 13-year-old son was held back at the Qalandia checkpoint separating the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
“They said he had to have a permit, but to get a permit you need to have an ID, and for that you must be 16,” Abeer said. Instead, Abeer’s family had to change their plans and went to the monastery in Jericho.
“To get the permits is so difficult, and there is no logic,” she said.
Shrugging, Abeer said that as an Orthodox Christian, her "real" Easter is in the beginning of May, so she hopes that maybe then, her whole family will get permits.
But even for Palestinians who received permits to enter for the week of Easter, they faced closed checkpoints for several days.
Lack of access to worship is the greatest obstacle for Palestinian Christians during Easter, according to Nora Carmi from the Palestinian Christian organization Kairos. She emphasized, though, that this is not only an issue for Christians, but for all Palestinians who need permits to access the holy sites in Jerusalem.
“I’m against permits. I don’t even think we should ask for permits,” said Carmi, highlighting that during Passover, thousands of Jews visit the city. “Do they need permits to pray? Why do Muslims and Christians who wish to worship pose a threat while they don’t?”
Carmi met with Al-Monitor at the Lion’s Gate — one of the entrances to the historic Old City in Jerusalem where Jesus, according to legend, entered riding on a donkey almost two millennia ago. She compared his path, usually referred to as "Via Dolorosa" (Latin for "the way of suffering") with the Palestinians' hardships throughout the past 65 years.
“For us, the Palestinian suffering started in 1948. Jesus was condemned to death, and we were condemned to nonexistence,” said Carmi.
The number of Palestinian Christians in Israel and the Palestinian territories has declined drastically from around 20% of the population prior to the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 to less than 2% today. This is partly a consequence of a growing Muslim majority and a high degree of emigration.
Israel has argued that the decline was caused by persecution by Muslims, an explanation Carmi refused. Bishop Mounib Younan from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land agreed, saying that emigration was a consequence of Israeli policies against Palestinians in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. This includes difficulties in obtaining building permits, a discouraging economy and high unemployment in the West Bank.
Speaking to Al-Monitor at his church in the Old City, Younan said that his congregation also expressed frustration with the difficulties in getting reunification papers.
“Our natural expansion is not allowed,” he said. As there are now only around 10,000 Palestinian Christians in Jerusalem — a couple thousand of the marrying age — it is natural that they also look for partners in the West Bank. But as those in the West Bank cannot get permission to live in Jerusalem and Jerusalemites will not risk losing their Jerusalem ID and the extra freedom of living on the Israeli side of the separation barrier, they either don’t get married or emigrate, the bishop explained.
In spite of the bleak prospects for Palestinian Christians for Easter, Bishop Younan referred to Jesus’ resurrection as a symbol of hope for a better future. As the church bells chimed, he revealed a line from his Good Friday sermon: “This day can be long and dark, and give us hopelessness as the peace process is not moving. But Easter gives me hope that no oppression or injustice will last,” he said. Part of his message this Easter will be to encourage Palestinian Christians to stay in the Holy Land.