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Christians welcome for Easter in Jerusalem – as long as not Palestinian

In this posting, short articles from +972 (1)  and Ma’an (4), Al Monitor on the Israeli squeeze on Christians (2) and background information from Electronic Intifada (3). Christian calendar for Easter 2013 (except for some Orthodox); Palm Sunday March 24; Maunday Thursday, marking the Last Supper (a seder) when Jesus washed the disciples’ feet, March 28; Good Friday, crucifixion of Jesus, March 29; Easter Sunday, resurrection of Jesus, March 31.

A Catholic worshipper takes part in a Palm Sunday procession on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem March 24, 2013. Photo by Ronen Zvulun, Reuters

Palestinian Christians protest permit regime during Psalm Sunday procession

During the annual Palm Sunday procession, Palestinian Christians protest permits delayed and denied during the Easter season.

Photos by Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Activestills, Words by + 972
March 25, 2013

During the annual Palm Sunday procession, Palestinian Christians protest permits delayed and denied during the Easter season.
Whether during Ramadan or Easter, every year, Palestinians with West Bank IDs face challenges entering Jerusalem for religious worship. Despite claims by Israeli authorities of granting more permits and relaxing restrictions, each year thousands of worshipers are denied entry.

This Easter season, early reports indicate that Palestinian Christian communities from the northern West Bank had to cancel their Palm Sunday celebrations in Jerusalem due to a lack of permits. Parishes from the Bethlehem and Ramallah areas received between 30% and 40% of the permits they requested.

One individual from the Bethlehem area lamented that while he was granted entry, the rest of his family was turned away at the checkpoint. Such arbitrary policies are typical with Israel’s permitting system, which rarely provides a coherent rationale for who is granted and who is denied, other the than the catch-all excuse of “security reasons”.

PLO official Hanan Ashrawi was quoted as saying:

There should not even be a question of needing permits to visit one’s own city…. 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. The fact that so many Palestinian Christian communities are denied their simple human right to worship freely in their own capital city is unacceptable.

Palestinian Christians and Muslims rightly ask why if they are granted special permission to visit Jerusalem for religious holiday seasons–and are at that time not considered a security threat–why they are not allowed to freely visit throughout the year.

The heavy Israeli military presence along the procession route contrasts with the original meaning of the holiday. Palm Sunday celebrates Jesus’ “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem, marking the beginning of the Christian Holy Week. According to the Christian scriptures, Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem, and the celebrating people there lay down their cloaks in front of him and waved palm branches as a symbol of victory. Additional symbolism included his choice to ride on a donkey, perhaps referring to Eastern traditions that it is an animal of peace, versus the horse, which is the animal of war. A king came riding upon a horse when he was bent on war and rode upon a donkey when he wanted to point out he was coming in peace. Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem would thus symbolize his entry as the Prince of Peace, not as a war-waging king.

The Gospel of Luke also contains this prescient passage of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem: “As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, ‘If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.’”


!n the annual Palm Sunday procession, Palestinian Christians carry signs naming their West Bank communities, all of which are cut off from Jerusalem by the Israeli separation barrier, requiring their residents to obtain special permits to enter, March 24, 2013. Such restrictions have dramatically reduced the number of Palestinians able to participate in religious traditions of any faith in Jerusalem.


Palestinian Christians carry a mock Israeli permit for entering Jerusalem. All Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza are cut off from Jerusalem by the Israeli separation barrier, requiring their residents to obtain special permits to enter. Photos by Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Activestills.org

Jerusalem Christians carry a crucifix to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Good Friday 2013. Many other Palestinian Christians could not get permits to attend.


Greek Catholic (Melkite) Palm Sunday service in Bethlehem. Photo, Christi Hoover Seidel


Palestinian Christians

By Lena Odgaard, Al-Monitor Palestine Pulse
March 29, 2013

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.

Lena Odgaard is a Danish journalist reporting from around the Middle East, mainly on Israel and Palestine. She tweets @l_odgaard.


Christianity in Palestine

By Timothy Seidel, Electronic Intifada
August 02, 2006

EXCERPT

Christianity in the Arab world has had a long and lively history, including in Palestine, where one still finds today communities of faith that stretch back thousands of years to the very beginnings of the church, where Arabic is spoken in liturgies and sermons, and where the church has played an integral role in the development of society, whether in terms of providing leadership in very difficult times or in pioneering valuable social services like education.

Today, of the roughly 3.9 million Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories, less than two percent are Christians. Of the 1.4 million Palestinians living inside Israel, meanwhile, roughly eight percent belong to Christian communities. Though small, these communities bear witness to two millennia of continuous Christian presence in the land called “holy” by much of the rest of the world.

Palestinian Christians belong to several traditional communities of faith, communities that can be grouped into four broad categories. The first are the traditions of the Eastern Orthodox churches. These would include the Greek Orthodox communities, claiming a continuous presence in the Holy Land since the times of the apostles. The second group is made of up what is sometimes referred to as the “Oriental” Orthodox churches, such as the Syrian, Coptic, and Armenian Orthodox communities. A third category consists of those churches belonging to the Catholic family of churches. In addition to Roman Catholic communities, referred to in the Middle East as the “Latin” church, one finds “Eastern Catholic” or “Eastern Rite Catholic” churches. These churches, though in communion with Rome and recognizing the authority of the pope, have maintained their own distinctive liturgy and traditions. Members of such communities as Greek Catholic or Syrian Catholic outnumber the number of “Latin” Catholics in Palestine and have a long history of involvement in the Palestinian struggle for justice. Finally, there are various Protestant communities, including not only Anglican and Lutheran churches, present since the nineteenth century, but also independent evangelical churches, including Baptist, Pentecostal, and more.

Today in Palestine, Christianity is experiencing what many would consider a crisis. This is not due to the growth of so-called Islamic fundamentalism or the persecution of “believers” by their Muslim neighbors, misrepresentations that are unfortunately used to distract from the realities of occupation. Instead, the plight of the Palestinian Christian is very much connected to that of the Palestinian Muslim in that both, whether in the Occupied Territories or inside Israeli itself, are experiencing daily injustices at the hands of oppressive and discriminatory policies imposed on them by the Israeli government.

Palestinian Christians, like their Muslim brothers and sisters, have experienced a long history of dispossession and have not been immune to Israeli policies of occupation and discrimination. If anything, they have felt more strongly the feelings of forsakenness, knowing full well that many Christians in North America and Europe support without question the state of Israel in its oppression of their people. Daily experiences of humiliation at checkpoints, of land confiscation to make way for the separation barrier, the illegal occupation and colonization of Palestinian territory, lack of mobility and access to basic services, unemployment, poverty, and no sense of hope for a better future for their children have all contributed to this growing emigration of Palestinian Christians from the historical land of Palestine.

Like their Muslim neighbors, who are prevented by checkpoints and roadblocks from making pilgrimage to the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, Christians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are denied basic religious freedoms, routinely prohibited from traveling very short distances to worship in one of the most holy sites in Christianity — the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the Old City of Jerusalem, where the church commemorates Jesus’ crucifixion, burial, and resurrection from the dead.

For the Palestinian Christians of Bethlehem, for example, traveling the six-mile (ten-kilometer) distance to Jerusalem’s Old City is impossible without special permission. Roughly half of Bethlehem’s residents are Christian. Church leaders estimate that over 2,000 Christians have emigrated from the Bethlehem area since September 2000, representing a decline of more than nine percent of Bethlehem’s total Christian population.

Rev. Alex Awad, Palestinian pastor of the East Jerusalem Baptist Church, reminds us that “Palestinian Christians have existed in the Holy Land since the day of Pentecost and have kept the torch of Christianity burning faithfully for the past two thousand years.” The erosion of Christianity in her birthplace, he poignantly observes “is a loss for the body of Christ everywhere. Can we imagine the Holy Land devoid of the Christian presence and a church which has been a faithful witness for Christ since the day the church was born?”

Unfortunately, various reportings of this phenomenon has revealed stereotypes in North America and Europe that continue to see the root socio-economic problem for Palestinian Christians as their Muslim neighbors. It is disconcerting that the portrayal of the Christian absence in Palestine, for example, is often played off as the fault of Muslims and not of the illegal Israeli occupation, as if Muslims are oppressing Christians and that this is the root of the problem for Palestinians. It is the occupation that has made life so difficult that many Christians have moved from Palestine. This continues to be a serious problem, ignored especially by “Christian” tour groups who while visiting the “Holy Land” seldom bother to even come to Bethlehem to see these ancient sites, let alone see these Christian communities and recognize their existence.


Ashrawi slams lack of permits for Christians on Palm Sunday

By Ma’an news
March 24/26, 2013

BETHLEHEM — PLO official Hanan Ashrawi on Sunday criticized a reported shortage of Israeli-issued permits for Christian communities in the West Bank to visit holy sites in Jerusalem, a statement said.

Parishes in Bethlehem and Ramallah only received 30 to 40 percent of requested permits to visit Jerusalem, a statement from the PLO official’s office said.

Several scout groups will not be able to participate in Palm Sunday celebrations due to the shortages.

“There should not even be a question of needing permits to visit one’s own city,” Ashrawi 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.

“The fact that so many Palestinian Christian communities are denied their simple human right to worship freely in their own capital city is unacceptable.”

Ashrawi called on pilgrims and international tourists to represent their Palestinian Christian brothers “who live only a few kilometers away, and who are cruelly denied the opportunity to partake in this important occasion.”

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