Church leaders in Jerusalem are appealing to Israeli authorities to reverse a decision that prohibits the Christmastime travel permits that usually allow a few hundred Christians from the Gaza Strip to visit Bethlehem, Nazareth and Jerusalem.
Israeli officials, citing security concerns, have broken with their usual practice and declined to grant the permits, Reuters reports. Gaza Christians may travel abroad but not to Israel and the West Bank.
Wadie Abu Nassar, an adviser to local church leaders, criticized the policy.
“Other people around the world are allowed to travel to Bethlehem. We think Gaza’s Christians should have that right, too,” he told Reuters.
One Gaza woman lamented the decision.
“Every year I pray they will give me a permit so I can celebrate Christmas and see my family,” Randa El-Amash, 50, told Reuters. “It will be more joyful to celebrate in Bethlehem and in Jerusalem.”
The Gaza Strip is a 141 square mile area under Palestinian control in the west of Israel. It is home to about 2 million people. Since 2007, it has been ruled by the Islamist movement Hamas.
Since Hamas came to power in Gaza, Israel and Egypt have imposed an economic blockade to restrict travel and to restrict the flow of goods, citing the need to limit the flow of weapons and the rocket attacks on Israel launched from the territory.
Inhabitants of Gaza suffer high unemployment and face electricity blackouts and drinking water shortages.
There are now only about 1,000 Christians still in Gaza, mostly adherents of the Greek Orthodox Church. In 2012 Christians numbered about 4,500.
Some Christians who secure travel permits to visit holy sites on Easter and Christmas never return home, preferring to seek a better life elsewhere.
Israeli authorities in the past have justified restrictions on travel from Gaza because travelers illegally overstay their visit in the West Bank.
Gisha, an Israeli rights group, told Reuters the travel ban is “a deepening of Israel’s separation policy” for the two Palestinian-controlled regions, the West Bank and Gaza.
In 2018, Israel granted nearly 700 Gaza Christians travel permits allowing them to go to Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Nazareth and other sites of pilgrimage.
While Israel’s population is predominantly Jewish, about 20 percent of the country’s 8.5 million people are Arab. About two percent are Christians, though their numbers have sharply declined after decades of emigration.
CNA contacted the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for comment but did not receive a response by deadline.