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Israel prevents hundreds of Gaza's Christians from Bethlehem Christmas pilgrimage despite lifting ban Open in fullscreen

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Israel prevents hundreds of Gaza's Christians from Bethlehem Christmas pilgrimage despite lifting ban

Church leaders said the visa process for Palestinians has been tightened [Getty]

Date of publication: 24 December, 2019

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Hundreds of Gazan Christians who planned to spend Christmas in Bethlehem had their hopes crushed after Israeli authorities refused their entry to the West Bank.
Christians from around the world have arrived in the West Bank town of Bethlehem ahead of Christmas day, while hundreds of Palestinian Christians from Gaza have been blocked by Israel from undertaking the pilgrimage.

Over 3.5 million tourists visit the city during this time, queuing to visit the grotto inside Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, believed to be the exact site where Jesus was born.

Palestinian tourism minister Rula Maaya told AFP it had been a good year, but fewer Christians from the Gaza Strip were in attendance than in previous years.

Wadie Abunassar, an advisor to and spokesman for church leaders in the Holy Land, said out of the 951 applications from Gazans so far, only 192 had been granted.

This comes after Israel announced on Sunday that it will allow Christians in the Gaza Strip to travel to Jerusalem and the West Bank for Christmas, reversing an April decision to ban them from leaving the besieged Palestinian enclave.

The Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza are separated by Israeli territory and crossing between them requires hard-to-get permits.

Abunassar said Christmas remained a time for hope.
"The Holy Land is not only the site of the birth and crucifixion (of Jesus), it is also the place of resurrection," he told AFP.

Tourists from all over the world came to worship during Christmas [Getty]

"Despite all challenges, difficulties, pain and problems we are facing, we keep the hope in God and people."

Visa process 'harder than usual'

Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, apostolic administrator of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem and the most senior Roman Catholic official in the Middle East, was due to travel from Jerusalem to Bethlehem on Tuesday morning.

He will lead midnight mass in the Church of the Nativity, with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas expected to attend.

Bethlehem is close to Jerusalem, but cut off from the holy city by Israel's separation barrier.

Read more: Missing $48 billion would be 'game-changer' for Palestinian economy

Church leaders said the normally straightforward process for granting visas has been strangely difficult.

“I was hoping to go to Bethlehem, but the circumstances did not allow it," Missak, who is deputy principal at a Christian school in Gaza, told AFP.

"There is the real celebration - the prayers, decorations in all the streets and the church," she said.

"The midnight mass is wonderful."

There are barely more than 1,000 Christians in all of Gaza, where two million people live crammed into a territory only 40 kilometres (25 miles) long and a few wide.

It is geographically separated from the West Bank - the Palestinian territory where Bethlehem is located - by Israel, and crossing between them requires hard-to-get Israeli permits.

On Sunday, a statement from COGAT, the Israeli military body responsible for the permits, said some would be granted "in accordance with security assessments".

Gaza is ruled by the Islamist group Hamas, which Israel accuses of abusing the permit system to plan attacks against its citizens.

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