HomeMiddle EastDespite Israeli restrictions, Christians celebrate the Holy Flame

Despite Israeli restrictions, Christians celebrate the Holy Flame

Jerusalem/Gaza – Palestinian Christians celebrated Light Saturday on Saturday in occupied East Jerusalem, Gaza and other Palestinian cities amid strict restrictions imposed by the Israeli authorities.

After the Holy Light flooded the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the Old City of Jerusalem, its flames were sent to the city of Ramallah and many other Palestinian cities, as well as several neighboring Arab and other European countries.

For the second year in a row, Israeli forces placed strict restrictions on Light Saturday celebrations at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, tightening procedures and closures and preventing worshipers from reaching the church.

Videos showing Israeli soldiers beating young men, physically grappling with women and shoving clerics on their way to church went viral on social media platforms.

In Jerusalem, William Khoury, a former deputy director of the Palestinian Orthodox Club and a member of the Arab Orthodox Christian community, told Al Jazeera that what happened was “nothing new.”

“For more than 10 years, we have been suffering from the occupation authorities putting up metal barriers, policemen and armed soldiers on the day of the Holy Fire,” he said.

Christians are prevented from reaching the Church of the Holy Sepulcher during Light Saturday in Jerusalem (Faiz Abu Rmeleh/Al Jazeera)

“This is the holiest day for Christians in this holy land. As Orthodox and Arab Christians, we tell the world that this city is ours, this church is ours, and this holy occasion is ours too. No one has the right to interrupt our celebrations on this day.

“We are Palestinians and we take pride in this identity,” Khoury said.

Fadi Halabi, a Jerusalem-based security analyst, told Al Jazeera that the dozens of checkpoints erected by Israeli forces prevented nearly 80 percent of Palestinian Christians from reaching the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

“Israel’s restrictions on Palestinian Christians are not new and are part of the unfortunate decisions made by the country’s right-wing government,” Halabi said.

“They are part of decades-long deliberate policies to erase other local communities in Jerusalem in an effort to try to show that Jerusalem is unique to a Jewish identity.”

Halabi said that, in recent years, Israeli attacks and vandalism of Christian sites and churches have increased “with little or no effort to arrest perpetrators clearly filmed on security surveillance cameras.”

Christians once made up 20 percent of the population of Jerusalem; now they represent less than 2 percent.

Fewer Palestinians allowed from Gaza to Jerusalem

In Gaza, the Greek Orthodox community celebrated Holy Saturday at the Church of Saint Porphyry in the Zaitoon neighborhood of Gaza’s Old City. Dozens of families attended the ceremonies of the effusion of the light of Christ according to the Bible. The celebrations began with an exhibition by the scouts and a welcome from the bishop.

Altar boys holding candles, crosses and icons in church
In Gaza, the Greek Orthodox Christian community celebrated Holy Saturday at the Church of Saint Porphyry (Abdelhakim Abu Riash/Al Jazeera)

Khader Nasrawi, 45, a freelance graphic designer and father of two, told Al Jazeera that he and his family love to celebrate Easter and the resurrection of Jesus.

“This occasion is not just a special occasion for Christians, but it shows the sanctity of Palestine, Jerusalem and Jesus Christ,” Nasrawi told Al Jazeera.

Although Nasrawi and her family have a special fondness for the holiday, she said that as Christians living in Gaza, their joy is incomplete.

“Every year we face difficulties getting out of the Gaza Strip and getting permission from the Israeli side to go, either to Bethlehem, to the Church of the Nativity or to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, to attend the Holy Light ceremonies. Nasrawi said. .

According to the Palestinian news agency Wafa, the Israeli authorities have increased their restrictions on the Church of the Holy Sepulcher this year, limiting the number of people who can attend Holy Saturday to just 1,800 people.

Every year, Christians in Gaza apply in the hope that the authorities will allow them to attend holy days in Jerusalem or Bethlehem. Usually only a few permits are granted, but this year Wafa said there were fewer than ever, leaving many Christians in Gaza heartbroken.

Nasrawi received a permit to go to Jerusalem this Passover, but it was not because his wife and children did not receive permits.

Holy Saturday in Gaza
Holy Saturday in Gaza (Abdelhakim Abu Riash/Al Jazeera)

“My wife hasn’t gotten a permit in three years, and neither have my children; there is no joy in going to the celebration without them,” she said.

“Easter is an occasion to emphasize the sacred message of Christ…a message of love and peace for the world. I wish the world that the days ahead are days of peace, kindness and love,” he added.

Fouad Ayad, 33, said this Easter is one of the worst for him, as he had high hopes of getting a permit to celebrate in Jerusalem.

“It is true that the situation in Jerusalem is tense and does not encourage me to go, but I am tired of being prevented from visiting for several years for no reason, despite being of Jerusalemite origin,” said Ayad, father of a daughter by a year and works in a school.

“I came here to celebrate Holy Saturday with the other Christian families in Gaza,” Ayad told Al Jazeera.

“It is known that the Christian community is a minority in Gaza and they face great difficulties in getting around and traveling through Israeli crossings,” he said, adding that he has been trying to get a permit for his Egyptian wife since they got married. three years ago, to no avail.

Worshipers inside the Greek Orthodox Church in the Old City of Gaza
“Easter is an occasion to emphasize Christ’s sacred message of love and peace to the world,” said Fouad Ayad (Abdelhakim Abu Riash/Al Jazeera)

“There are big complications at every step here, but we hope things will get easier and the next few years will be better,” he added.

For his part, his wife, Angie Ayad, 24, told Al Jazeera that she finds the atmosphere of Easter beautiful and spiritual in the churches of the Gaza Strip.

“Since I was in Egypt, I always wanted to visit Jerusalem with my family and attend the Passover celebrations there, but all this is very difficult due to the Israeli complications and the exceptional conditions in the Palestinian territory,” he said.

“I have been trying to apply for a visitor permit ever since I got married and moved to the Gaza Strip, but this also seems difficult.”

Despite this, Angie Ayad said that she enjoys living in Gaza, contrary to what she expected and saw in the media. “Life here is beautiful and simple, the people are simple, and I am happy to be here with my son and my husband.”

Madonna Ayad, 29, who is also Egyptian, also sees life as beautiful in Gaza “except for the wars.”

The two friends got married and arrived in Gaza in 2020 and are still waiting to get their official identification papers.

Faithful reading their hymnals in church
Worshipers at the Holy Saturday service at St. Porphyry’s Church in Gaza on April 16, 2023 (Abdelhakim Abu Riash/Al Jazeera)

Madonna Ayad sees the festive atmosphere of Passover in Gaza as very close to the celebrations in Egypt.

“Usually Christians can go from Egypt to Jerusalem and Bethlehem to pray normally, but it is difficult to get a Gaza visitor permit without a family reunion and a great set of conditions,” he said.

Madonna Ayad’s husband, Imad Ayad, 34, a relative of Fouad, told Al Jazeera that the problem facing Christians in Gaza and the rest of the Palestinian territory is simply that they are “Palestinians.”

“What happened yesterday in Jerusalem was very sad. It is a blessed Eid that people wait year after year to be violently attacked by Israeli forces. It’s beyond possibility.”

Elias al-Jilda, a member of the Council of Deputies of the Arab Orthodox Church in Gaza, told Al Jazeera that this year’s Easter celebrations are set against the backdrop of widespread harassment of Christians and Muslims in Jerusalem, including attacks on worshipers in the Al -Aqsa Mosque and Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

A view of two hands holding blessing candles against the richly painted ceiling of the church
This year’s Easter celebrations are set against the backdrop of widespread harassment of Christians and Muslims in Jerusalem (Abdelhakim Abu Riash/Al Jazeera)

“There are also racist practices that we saw in the media by Israeli extremists spitting on Christian nuns in Jerusalem. This is evidence of the fanaticism and extremism practiced by the Israeli occupation, especially by the extremist Israeli government led by (Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu.

“These restrictions are aimed at emptying Jerusalem of Christians and Muslims and pushing them to emigrate out of the country, as is happening, and this is a direct form of religious persecution,” al-Jilda said.

Christians in Gaza, he said, suffer the most from the continued denial of permits to visit Jerusalem or Bethlehem, where the number of approved permits is always very low.

“This is an intentional ban on exercising our natural right to practice our religious rites, and this is contrary to all international, legal and human laws,” al-Jilda noted.

“We send a message to the international community and to defenders of peace and human rights that the persecution of the right to worship in Palestine against Muslims and Christians is unacceptable and needs urgent intervention. Our people have the right to get rid of the occupation and live with dignity and freedom.”

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