Thousands of Israeli police officers were deployed in the streets of Jerusalem as Orthodox Christians from around the world gathered Saturday and Sunday to celebrate the Easter holiday. The Palestine Liberation Organization issued a statement condemning the Israeli restrictions on access to Jerusalem for Palestinian Christians, and for “turn[ing] a religious occasion into a battle camp scenario”.There has never been an incident of violence in the annual gathering of Orthodox Christians, which has been a yearly event for over 1,000 years. But Israel decided to deploy heavily armed troops throughout the areas of celebration, making many of the celebrants say that they felt frightened and intimidated.
In addition, Palestinian Christians from the West Bank and Gaza are severely restricted in their ability to enter Jerusalem and participate in the ceremonies. These Christians must apply months in advance for a permit, and many are denied permission. Anyone who has ever been abducted by Israeli troops or wounded by Israeli troops is categorically denied permission to enter the Holy City.
Even if a permit is granted, there is no guarantee that a Palestinian Christian will be allowed to enter Jerusalem. They must still pass through long lines at checkpoints, where Israeli soldiers can arbitrarily decide to deny permission and refuse entry. On Saturday, a group of Palestinian Christians, foreign diplomats and the Palestinian governor for the Jerusalem Governorate were denied entry by Israeli soldiers when they tried to enter the Old City of Jerusalem to pray.
According to the statement by the Palestine Liberation Organization, Israel created ‘countless difficulties’ for Palestinian Christians trying to celebrate their most sacred holiday.
PLO official Hanna Amireh, who also heads the Presidential Committee on Church Affairs, stated, “It is not only that Israel has isolated our occupied capital from the rest of our country — forcing our people to apply for special military permits to access their families and holy places for religious occasions — but even Palestinians from Jerusalem were beaten when trying to reach the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.’
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is located in Jerusalem’s Old City, and is the place where Christians believe that Jesus ascended into heaven. On the Saturday before Easter, Orthodox Christians carry out a ‘Holy Fire’ ceremony, in which a torch is lit in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and carried to Bethlehem, where Christians believe that Jesus was born. The Jerusalem-Bethlehem road is now blocked by a massive Israeli checkpoint, rendering the ceremony virtually impossible.
This year, the torch was allowed to pass through the checkpoint, but the throngs of pilgrims from around the world were not able to accompany it, as they have done for over a thousand years.
According to Amireh, ‘This is part of Israel’s plan to turn Jerusalem into an exclusive Jewish city. Palestinian Christians and Muslims face countless difficulties in order to reach their holy sites and conduct their celebrations, while Jews from anywhere are allowed to freely pray at their holy places.”
Amireh added, ‘The Israeli government is doing everything possible in order to achieve its goal of changing Jerusalem’s landscape, by building more settlements, demolishing more Palestinian homes, revoking more IDs and by attempting to prevent the normal celebration of Christian and Muslim religious events.’