To be a Christian from the land of Jesus Christ is a blessing that not many can claim to share. But this blessing brings with it a daily struggle to preserve our traditions and uphold Christian practices. Faith has not disappeared, hope still guides our lives, but the lack of response to our plight makes many in our community wonder whether the world really cares about us. Israeli restrictions on our freedom of worship throughout the year should remind the world of its responsibility to help end oppression and occupation in the Holy Land.
Israeli politicians say one thing loud and clear: They want recognition of Israel as a Jewish state and Jerusalem as the “eternal and undivided capital of the Jewish people.” The Palestinian people, Christians and Muslims, suffer on a daily basis from this concept of exclusivity, which goes entirely against our internationally recognized inalienable, civil and political rights. To someone who believes that Jerusalem is the exclusive property of Israel, refusal of entry to millions of Christian and Muslim Palestinians and denial of their right to pray perhaps seems acceptable. So far, no international action has been taken to ensure that this discriminatory policy by the occupying power is brought to an end.
Since the early 1990s, Israel has imposed a permit regime that prevents free movement by Palestinians within their own territory. To move around requires asking for special Israeli permits. All Palestinian churches must do this for their faithful ahead of every religious occasion, creating an unacceptable situation whereby Christians from Bethlehem, living just 10 km away from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, can spend years without being able to pray at this holy site, while an American or Israeli tourist can freely visit it at any time. This situation is turning our religious sites into museums to be visited by foreigners rather than places of worship for a vibrant local community that has been the caretaker of Christian sites, preserving them for centuries.
One should not be misled by the issue of permits. The question is not how many permits Palestinians are given every Easter or Christmas, but why we should have to apply for them at all simply in order to visit our own city and holy places that we have prayed at for centuries. Palestinians do not need a foreign occupation force to control their movements; all they need is a just peace that will lead to understanding and coexistence. This just peace can only begin by ending 46 years of Israeli occupation and colonization, leading to two sovereign and democratic states — Israel and Palestine — based on the 1967 border. Arrangements for Jerusalem should be made so that it serves as the capital of both states and spiritual centers for Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
During Easter 2013, parishioners from ancient communities, including Jenin, Gaza and Birzeit, had to cancel their planned pilgrimage to Jerusalem due to the lack of Israeli permits. The descendants of the pastors who worshipped Jesus Christ, the people of Beit Sahour, managed to have one busload of pilgrims join in the Palm Sunday procession although the total number of Christians in that city is around 9,000. Many of those who received permits from Bethlehem or Ramallah did not make use of them because only one or two members of the family were granted access to Jerusalem. Easter is a time for family. It certainly cannot be celebrated without one’s spouse or children.
During the Good Friday procession, we witnessed how, barely a few meters in front of the Holy Sepulchre, Palestinian Christians were beaten by Israeli police, who were allowing foreign priests to make their way into the church, but not Palestinian Christians. At the same time, Israeli authorities were allowing groups of tourists, brought by Israeli tour operators, to access the church from the other side. Again, this can only be understood through the discriminatory eyes of one who thinks that Christianity in East Jerusalem is a source of income rather than one of spirituality. The latter is what the “eternal and undivided capital of the Jewish people” means for the Palestinian people, Christians and Muslims.
The images of Holy Fire Saturday, during which priests, officials and community members were repressed, beaten and prevented from celebrating the Holy Fire inside Jerusalem’s Old City, succinctly reflects the situation under which we live. The occupation imposes a context of war on celebrations aimed at spreading peace, hope and justice.
No just and lasting solution to the situation in Israel and Palestine can be achieved without honoring the rights of everyone. Holy Land Christians are an integral part of the Palestinian people whose rights have been denied for decades. As a Palestinian Jerusalemite, as a priest and as head of a congregation outside the Holy City, I am a witness to the injustices that we have been suffering for decades. It is time to say enough is enough. It is time for a strong and clear approach that will ensure freedom of worship for everyone, Christians, Muslims and Jews, as well as freedom and dignity for the Palestinian people.
Father Johnny Abu Khalil is a Roman Catholic priest and the head of a parish in Nablus, West Bank.