Some 300 Gaza Christians received an early Christmas gift from Israel today: permission to travel to Bethlehem, revered by Christians around the world as the birthplace of Jesus. Tens of thousands of pilgrims descend on the West Bank city every year between Dec. 25 and the Eastern Orthodox Christmas on Jan. 7 to pray and hold services, many in the Church of the Nativity.
The Gaza Christians allowed to travel starting Thursday make up less than half of the 750 Gazans who applied for permits, with Israel strictly limiting travel out of the Hamas-run territory.
“Living here is like being in a big prison,” says Constantine Dabbagh, executive security of the Gaza Area Committee of the Near East Council of Churches (NECC), an ecumenical humanitarian organization. “It’s impossible to get out, for any reason – sickness, education, worship, reuniting with family members. So if you can manage to get out, it’s an amazing thing.”
Only a small number of Israeli permits to leave Gaza have been issued to Christian and Muslim residents alike since Palestinians began carrying out deadly suicide bombings on Israeli civilian targets as part of an armed uprising against Israeli occupation in 2000.
Israel tightened the borders even further when the Islamist movement Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel, violently routed its rival Fatah from Gaza in 2007. Now only a handful of the 1.5 million Palestinians here are allowed to leave to study abroad or get medical treatment.
Gaza’s Christian leaders say the permits issued for traveling to Bethlehem this year are valid for one month, and only available for those older than 35, something Israeli border officials would not confirm. Gaza’s Christians were only issued their permits on Dec. 23, one day before they were authorized to travel on Dec. 24.
Low-profile celebrations after 2007 Hamas takeover
For those celebrating at home, Christmas is shaping up to be a somber affair this year in the war-torn Gaza Strip, struggling to recover a year after the Israel’s blistering three-week offensive began on Dec. 27.
Celebrations are now more low-profile in the wake of the Hamas takeover, after which there were several violent attacks on Christians and Christian institutions by extremist Islamist groups. Gaza’s Christians say this year they will not light a large Christmas tree in Gaza City’s main square as they have in the past, and will exchange greetings and meet relatives only at home.
Gaza resident Minerva Salim Saber flat-out refuses to celebrate Christmas this year. Just one year ago, her house was destroyed and her son killed in an Israeli missile attack. Celebrating this year, on the anniversary of her son’s death, she says, would be wrong.
“Normally I apply for a permit to travel to Bethlehem for Christmas,” says Mrs. Saber, one of the approximately 200 Roman Catholics in Gaza. “But this year, I won’t. I won’t even have a tree in my house. I am devastated.”
Archbishop to Gazans: 'Continue to give love'
Since 2007, the Christian community – mainly Greek Orthodox but also Roman Catholic and Baptist, religions that trace their roots in Gaza to as early as the third century – has fallen from over 5,000 to less than 3,000 in 2009, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics.
Despite the decline, however, Saber says she feels solidarity with her Palestinian Muslim brethren in Gaza, and does not feel squeezed by Islamist rule.
The head of the Gaza’s Greek Orthodox Church, Archbishop Alexios, says this Christmas he will instruct those of his congregation who were unable to reach Bethlehem to make the best of their situation, despite the hardships.
“I will tell them to continue to give love, and to help themselves and other people,” he says. “This is the best we can do. What we need is peace in the region so people in Israel and in Gaza can live as all humans should, with all of their rights.