On Sunday, the second day of his Holy Land pilgrimage, Pope Francis will preside over a Mass in Bethlehem’s Nativity Square.
For this reason, the Israeli authorities will allow 650 Palestinian Christians from Gaza to enter the West Bank.
The faithful of the territory hoped intensely to be able to leave the coastal strip to take part in the Eucharistic celebration with the Holy Father, the website of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem reported. Moreover, one of the families who asked for the indispensable permission, will be able to dine with the Argentine Pontiff.
In Gaza, more than 1.5 million Palestinians endure the isolation and blockade imposed by the Israel, and a lack of prospects. But in a society where over 99% of the population is Muslim, the Christian community is victim of additional discrimination, which has resulted in mass emigration in recent years. According to sources, the number amounts to some 1,300 persons. In this context, despite everything, the Pope’s visit to the Holy Land will be an injection of hope for them.
Israel’s War of Independence in 1948 left 750,000 Palestinian refugees, of which 150,000 were Christians. It caused a geographic, economic and social catastrophe in the Arab population. The situation worsened in 1967 with Israel’s occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. The restrictions on movement were multiplied, the Palestinian economy collapsed and every option to receive a good education or to find work was at the mercy of the unstable political situation.
Given the hardships, Christians began to emigrate in a massive way in search of a better future, with more possibilities for their children. This fact, coupled with the rapid demographic growth of the Muslim faithful, is the reason that the Christian presence in Palestine and Israel has been reduced to 1.48%.
In important cities, such as Ramallah and Jerusalem, Christians constituted 80% of the population at the beginning of the 20th century. Now they are 5% of the total population. In Bethlehem, the Christian city par excellence, the Christian representation decreased by 90% at the beginning of the 20th century to the present 30%.
Today it is difficult to know the exact number of Palestinian Christians who live in the Holy Land. The Inter-Churches Center of Jerusalen has carried out a careful study which reveals that the number of Christians in Palestine and Israel amounts to 200,000: 50,000 live in the Occupied Territories, 3,000 in Gaza, and 150,000 in Israel. The latest data of the Palestinian Office of Statistics, which the Inter-Churches Center used, are of 2004 and they indicate that, in that year, only 9,000 Christians lived in Jerusalem.
The Israeli Police announced Thursday that more than 8,000 personnel from Israel’s security forces will be in charge of ensuring normality during Francis visit to Jerusalem on May 25-26.