Israel has allowed 500 Christian Palestinians to leave the Gaza Strip to celebrate Easter in Jerusalem, the Palestinian Authority's Interior Ministry announced Monday, days after reports of an Israeli decision to give special permits to only 200 of the 1,200-strong Gazan Christian community drew criticism of Israel's "arbitrary" change in policy.
The PA said that 300 Christians would be let into Jerusalem and the West Bank, and 200 more would leave for the Allenby Bridge, or King Hussein Bridge, on the border between Israeli-controlled West Bank and Jordan, and from there head to Amman and to other destinations worldwide.
Haaretz reported on Wednesday that the Israeli army's Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories changed its previous policy, allowing only 200 Christians to leave Gaza and head only to Jordan, with no permits allowing them to visit Jerusalem or the West Bank.
COGAT said it was acting according to restrictions placed by the defense establishment, and confirmed that 200 requests by Gazans aged 55 and over had been approved.
In the Eastern Orthodox Church, Easter, which symbolizes the resurrection of Jesus, is considered the principal festival, as opposed to Western (Catholic and Protestant) Christianity, which places more emphasis on Christmas in December.
In the Eastern Orthodox communities, to which most Palestinians belong, the holiday will be celebrated on April 28, when worshipers from all over the world customarily visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, mainly for the Holy Fire ceremony, and participate in masses and ceremonies that last for several days.
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Gaza's Christians heavily criticized Israel's initial decision, which they claim intended to cut Gaza off from the West Bank. Leaders of the Gazan Christian community said there's no reason to prevent any of its members to visit Jerusalem and Bethlehem during the holiday, citing Israel's claim to ensure freedom of worship for all.
Human rights organization Gisha, which monitors restrictions to Palestinians' freedom of movement, had also asked COGAT to increase the number of permits it provided and said there's no justification for the last-minute timing of their announcement.
"Israel must allow all those seeking to practice their right to freedom of religion and worship to leave Gaza, subject only to individual security checks," it said.
A political source told Haaretz over the weekend that according to recommendations by Israel's security agencies, exit permits for Gaza's Christians have been extended.
COGAT confirmed that 300 additional permits, allowing Gazans to visit Jerusalem and the West Bank, have been issued. However, it didn't specify what brought about this change in policy.
Gazan sources said that in recent years, Israel issued permits to certain people who ended up staying in the Strip since they would not travel without their family members, who did not get a permit.
Sources also said that the though the recent decision still gives Gazans time to prepare for their departure, the initial decision left many hanging in uncertainty for a long time.