Only Christians over the age of 55 are being allowed to enter Israel from the Gaza Strip to pray at Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher during Easter, a document issued by the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) has stipulated. According to Christian clergy in Gaza, who say the limitations are unjustified, only about 120 Christians meet the age criteria and many of them will not be able to travel unless accompanied by relatives who are under the age limit. George Anton, a Christian community activist from Gaza, said that no permits for Easter have been issued so far.
Easter, also known as “The Great Feast,” is the most important holiday in the Christian liturgical calendar. Catholics and Protestants celebrated Easter Sunday yesterday, April 1, while the Eastern Orthodox churches will mark the holiday this coming Sunday, April 8.
Anton told Haaretz that there are about 1,200 Christians living in Gaza. Similar age restrictions have been imposed in the past, he said. For the Easter holiday in 2015, following the war in the Gaza Strip the previous year, entry to Israel was barred for persons aged 16 to 35. However, after church leaders in Israel and abroad intervened, the restriction was lifted and 850 permits were issued.
Hadash Lawmaker Aida Touma-Sliman (Joint List) asked Deputy Defense Minister Eli Ben-Dahan to change the entry conditions so that all Christians would “be able to exercise their basic right to freedom of religion.” Touma-Sliman said she has not yet received an answer. “Israel boasts to the whole world that it is a safe place for all religions. But in fact it continues to harm the Palestinian Christian population,” the lawmaker said. She added that the age restriction “constitutes more proof that Israel has never left Gaza and continues to control everything that happens there.”
Following requests for action from Gaza, the nonprofit organization Gisha – Legal Center for Freedom of Movement – demanded in a letter to COGAT that the age restriction be lifted and that the number of permits for the holiday be increased. “There is no justification for arbitrary impairment of freedom of movement and religion,” Gisha wrote, “certainly not a dialogue of threats. This is another example of collective punishment of the residents, and generally the punitive and arbitrary nature of Israel’s permit regime with regard to Gazans.”