The coordination unit for the activities of the Israeli government in the Palestinian territories (COGAT) on Sunday 22 December released via Twitter the information that the Israeli authorities are willing to grant Christians residing in the Gaza strip the permits necessary to reach Jerusalem, Bethlehem and other areas of the West Bank in conjunction with the Christmas holidays, reported Fides News Agency. This was announced by General Kamil Abu Rukun in charge of COGAT. In the information disseminated by the Israeli body, it was specified that permits will be granted to individuals on the basis of “security assessments” and without taking into account the age of the applicants.
This year, the failure to grant until the last minute the permits necessary for Christians in Gaza to go to celebrate the solemnity of Christmas at the Holy Places of Bethlehem and Jerusalem had been highlighted with regret by authoritative ecclesiastical exponents. “It is an annual ritual, permits are first denied and then granted”, said Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Apostolic Administrator for the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem.
Now, the opening in extremis to the granting of permits, which has now taken place close to the celebration of Christmas, makes it difficult to predict how many Christians in Gaza will be able to take advantage of the new provisions made known by the Israeli authorities. According to local sources, less than 60 permits have actually been issued at the moment.
In recent years, the Israeli authorities had sometimes granted a limited but substantial number of permits reserved for Christians in Gaza who wanted to go mainly to Bethlehem, Nazareth or Jerusalem to celebrate the Christian holidays of Christmas or Easter there. Already last year there was a significant limitation of the permits granted by the Israeli authorities, which had been reserved only for people over the age of 55.
In December 2015, the Israeli authorities granted 600 registered permits to as many Christians residing in the Gaza Strip to allow them to visit the Holy Places – starting with those located in Bethlehem – on the occasion of the Christmas holidays. The permits granted that time had a monthly duration, and no permits had been granted to people in the age range between twelve and thirty.
Christians in the Gaza Strip are now just over a thousand, mostly Greek Orthodox, out of a total population of 2 million Palestinians. The small Christian reality of the Strip continues to thin out: there are young people who leave the land where they were born to emigrate, while in the churches the funerals of the elderly who end their earthly life are often celebrated. The many departures are a symptom that nobody believes in a close change, compared to a collective condition marked by international isolation, the lack of work and the never dormant threat of new wars.