Israeli Church Leaders Urge Government to Allow Gazans Into Bethlehem for Christmas

Over 900 Christians in the enclave have asked for permits to travel to the West Bank for the holiday, but only 100 have been allowed to leave the Strip

Palestinian Christians attend a Christmas tree lighting celebration on December 3, 2019 in Gaza City.

Catholic leaders in Israel urged the government on Thursday to allow Christians in Gaza to visit Bethlehem, in the West Bank, for Christmas next week.

Authorities said last week that Gaza's Christians, who number some 1,200, would not be permitted to travel to the West Bank for the holiday. About 950 Gazans applied to leave for Christmas; the government agreed to allow 100 people over the age of 45 to travel to Jordan and not to the West Bank.

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The past week saw efforts to convince authorities to change their decision, and earlier this week the coordinator for government activities in the territories' website posted a link saying that 500 people would be allowed to leave Gaza for Christmas. A few hours later, the link was deleted and the office said a decision had not been reached, blaming a technical glitch.

A public statement by the heads of Catholic churches in the country, directed at foreign diplomats as well as the government, expressed frustration over the apparent indecision. The statement noted that with less than a week to go before Christmas, the government has failed to provide a clear answer, saying on Wednesday evening that it had still not made a decision.

 Pilgrims pray in the Grotto of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem on December 18, 2019.

The church leaders stated that failure to provide permits to travel to the West Bank for the holiday would violate Gazans' religious freedom.

This year's decision is a break with usual policy. Last year, Israel granted permits for close to 700 Gazan Christians to travel to Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth and other holy cities that draw thousands of pilgrims each holiday season.

In April, 300 Gazan Christians were allowed to visit the West Bank and Jerusalem for Easter only after public pressure on Israel to change its initial decision to bar them from entering the West Bank and Israel.

Israel in the past has defended its restrictions on Gazans traveling to the West Bank, saying many Palestinians from Gaza stay on illegally when granted short-term permits.