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Gazan Christians travel to West Bank for Pope visit

May 22, 2014 7:57 P.M. (Updated: May 23, 2014 9:45 P.M.)
GAZA CITY (AFP) -- Several hundred Palestinian Christians from the Gaza Strip have been allowed to leave the besieged Palestinian territory to travel to the West Bank for Pope Francis's upcoming visit, officials said Thursday.

"Israel allowed around 650 Christians in Gaza to travel to the West Bank during the pope's visit" this weekend, a security official told AFP .

Dozens of pilgrims passed through the Erez border crossing Thursday morning, an AFP correspondent said, referring to the Israeli-controlled personnel crossing from the Strip, which is run by the Hamas movement.

Pope Francis arrives in Jordan on Saturday before traveling to the West Bank town of Bethlehem, then to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

"This visit honors Palestinians and recognizes them as a people, and acknowledges their rights," said 22-year-old Milad Ayyad, whose mother will go while he is left behind.

Israel has only allowed Christians over 35 years of age to go.

Minerva Saba, a 54-year-old woman who lost a son during an Israeli military operation in Gaza in 2008, called on the pope to "come to Gaza and pray with us in our church, to see how people live here."

"Christians are a minority in Gaza and they have many problems which the pope must hear about," she said.

Gaza is home to only some 1,500 Christians out of an overwhelmingly Muslim population of 1.7 million people. Most of them are Greek Orthodox, and only about 130 Roman Catholic.

They have been targeted in a few attacks by militants since Hamas took over Gaza in 2007. A hand grenade exploded in the courtyard of a Roman Catholic church in Gaza City in February, and in 2011, a bomb targeted the director of Gaza's Anglican hospital, who escaped unharmed.

Like other Gaza Palestinians, Christians have also suffered as a result of the severe Israeli-imposed economic blockade since 2007.

Ma'an staff contributed to this report.
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