Palestinian Christians barred from Jerusalem’s Old City at Easter

During Gaza war, usual crowds of international worshippers are absent, and Palestinians face ‘unprecedented’ restrictions.

A nun attends the Catholic Washing of the Feet ceremony during Easter Holy Week in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem’s Old City on March 28, 2024 [Ronen Zvulun/Reuters]Published On 29 Mar 202429 Mar 2024

As Christians around the world prepare to celebrate Easter, Palestinians in the land that birthed the religion are facing severe restrictions on entering Jerusalem’s Old City to mark the occasion.

While at least 200 leaders from the occupied West Bank have been given permits to enter the area, their congregations are not being allowed access to participate in the services, said Al Jazeera’s Imran Khan, reporting from occupied East Jerusalem.

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The restrictions are “unprecedented”, Khan said as a procession of worshippers, far smaller than the usual Good Friday crowds, walked the Via Dolorosa – the path Jesus is said to have followed on the way to his crucifixion more than 2,000 years ago.

The Old City is unusually empty owing to the war in Gaza, but Palestinian Christians were “desperate” to visit their places of worship, Khan said.

“Palestinian Christians from the occupied West Bank – not the international tourists who are staying away because of the war on Gaza – these are people who actually want to come to the Old City and celebrate Easter, but they’re not being allowed to.”

Christians are usually granted access to East Jerusalem, he said, although Palestinian Muslims routinely face restrictions. Access to Al-Aqsa Mosque has been denied to men under the age of 65 and women under the age of 50 on the third Friday of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

‘Dark days’

“These are very dark days, very difficult days,” the Reverend Munther Isaac said, speaking to Al Jazeera from Bethlehem in the West Bank. “I think the restrictions this year have definitely increased. Even for us here in Bethlehem – and Jerusalem is literally 20 minutes away from here – we don’t have access.”

“Jerusalem is very important for us, especially at Easter. We’re accustomed to … praying in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre,” he said.

“This is part of our daily life under occupation. The war has added to our pain because of the magnitude of death and killing.”

Fayaz Dakkak, the owner of a family store selling religious souvenirs, said he was not expecting to make any sales. As the war rages on, the typical crowds from around the world have not descended on the city to visit the 12th-century Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site where Jesus is believed to have been crucified, buried and resurrected.

“We’ve been feeling a lot more uncomfortable this time because there’s profiling. If you’re passing by any gate, whether it’s the Damascus Gate, New Gate, Jaffa Gate, and the police officer or the soldier feels you are not Israeli, you’re stopped, you’re checked,” he said.

“Most of the time, it’s not very pleasant,” he added. While some members of the security forces carry out straightforward ID checks, others are more “violent”, he said.

Rafi, a Christian youth coordinator, said Israeli settlers had made the Old City an almost no-go zone. “Even before the war started, we saw the settlers attacking the churches and even the Christian cemeteries,” he said.

“They were attacking any priest or any nun walking inside Jerusalem. Even the pilgrims walking the Way of the Cross [Via Dolorosa] were under attack.”

Worshippers carry a cross as they participate in the Good Friday procession of the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem’s Old City on March 29, 2024 [Ammar Awad/Reuters]

Many Palestinian Christians from the occupied West Bank have been deprived of walking the Via Dolorosa this year.

Even before the war, Palestinian Christian had to request permission to visit the Old City well in advance of celebrations. Last year, the Greek Orthodox Church slammed what it called Israel’s “heavy-handed restrictions” on freedom of worship during Easter.

Israeli police had said limits were needed for safety during the “Holy Fire” celebration at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, during which a flame taken from Jesus’s tomb in the church is used to light the candles of worshippers. Christian leaders said there was no need to alter a ceremony that had been held for centuries and they believed it was part of an ongoing Israeli policy to push Palestinians out of their homeland.

Source: Al Jazeera