GAZA CITY (Ma’an) -- Hundreds of Christian Palestinians from the Gaza Strip will travel to celebrate Easter in Bethlehem and occupied East Jerusalem after the Israeli authorities agreed to grant them permits, a Palestinian Authority official said Saturday.
Muhammad al-Maqadma, a public information officer for the Palestinian Ministry of Civil Affairs, told Ma’an that Israel had granted around 850 permits to Gaza Christians of different ages to travel to the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Al-Maqadma said the permits were the result of “dedicated efforts” by Minister of Civil Affairs Hussein al-Sheikh in order to enable hundreds of Christians to celebrate the holidays within a span of 45 days.
This is the first time such a large number of Christians from Gaza received permits to travel to the West Bank and Jerusalem, al-Maqadma added.
Parish priest of the Holy Family in Gaza Fr. Mario de Silva told Ma'an that the group would include Palestinians between the ages of 16 and 35 for the first time in eight years.
The inflow of permits comes after hundreds of travel permits were revoked from Palestinians in Gaza last month, and Israel froze an agreement earlier this week that previously permitted a limited number of Gazans above the age of 60 to travel to occupied East Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa for Friday worship.
In a press briefing on Thursday, the rector of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, Father Jamal Khader, said the way permits were attributed in past years affected the number of Gaza Christians who could actually travel to Jerusalem for Easter.
“In previous years, permits (for Gaza Christians) were given randomly, and if they don’t have them for the whole family, they cannot come,” Khader said.
“Can you imagine some members of the family coming to celebrate in Jerusalem and leaving behind their family? It’s not in our traditions, we celebrate together. So we had the experience in previous years when very few came. This year I’m not sure.”
Easter is celebrated on March 27 this year, as Jerusalem traditionally hosts large celebrations during the week leading up to the holiday, most notably on Palm Sunday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday.
East Jerusalem, including the historic Old City, was occupied by Israeli forces in 1967 and later annexed in a move not recognized by the international community.
In past years, Christian celebrations in Jerusalem during the week leading up to Easter have been subjected to stringent Israeli security measures, with increased numbers of checkpoints and military closures around the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built where Jesus Christ is traditionally believed to have been crucified and buried.
Israeli restrictions on Palestinian Christian worship during the holiday has in the past prevented thousands of Christian Palestinians from traveling to Jerusalem and has led to chaotic scenes in the city itself.
There are around 200,000 Palestinian Christians in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and inside Israel in total, while hundreds of thousands more live abroad.