Permission to pray

By EA Alexia, East Jerusalem.

The start of Good Friday’s Via Dolorosa procession in Jerusalem. [Photo EAPPI/AHaywood]

The start of Good Friday’s Via Dolorosa procession in Jerusalem [Photo: EAPPI/A.Haywood]

Easter weekend in Jerusalem: Christians of all stripes, colours and nationalities walk through the streets in solemn procession and fill churches with joyful celebration.  “It’s such an international crowd, isn’t it wonderful?,”  I overhear someone say at an Easter Sunday morning service. You can see and hear people from nearly every continent, but one nationality is strikingly absent: Palestinian Christians. Of course, they may be at one of the many other services around the city. They may also, like the majority of Palestinian Christians living in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, belong to one of the Eastern traditions, who celebrate Easter on April 30 this year.

Still, something does set Palestinian Christians apart from others visiting their churches in Jerusalem’s Old City: they cannot freely visit their own holy place. Like all Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza, they have to apply for permits to access East Jerusalem, which has been under Israeli occupation since 1967. This year, Easter coincided with Purim, a Jewish festival, and, as every year, permits for workers from the West Bank were cancelled for five consecutive days. Palestinian Muslims wishing to pray at the Old City’s Al Aqsa mosque and those over 60, who usually do not need a permit to cross, were also not being allowed through checkpoints into Jerusalem. Although Palestinian Christians normally receive special Easter permits, some who spoke to EAPPI told of never hearing back about their applications, or of not wanting to apply because of previous bad experiences of the permit system.

SONY DSC

View of Jerusalem’s Old City including the Dome of the Rock in the Al Aqsa mosque compound [Photo: EAPPI/A.Haywood]

In a written Easter address, Father Jamal Khader of Jerusalem’s Latin Patriarchate Seminary referred to the institutionalisation of “a system of restrictions based on checkpoints, permits and barriers to limit the movement and access of Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip to enter religious sites to worship”.

Jerusalem is a holy site for all three faiths, but for many Muslims across occupied Palestine, visiting Al Aqsa – the third holiest site for Sunni Islam – is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Um Tariq, from a town near Hebron, in the southern West Bank, took her son there when he was 13. “For men over 16 and under 60 it is nearly impossible to get a permit,” she says.

Um Tariq does not go to occupied Palestine’s Ibrahimi mosque – the fourth holiest site for Sunni Islam – either, even though it is only a 20-minute bus journey away. “You have to go through all these checkpoints,” she says. “They ask you to show what’s under your dress, they search your bag; it’s humiliating.”

Hebron’s Old City, including the Ibrahimi mosque, is under Israeli military control, and there are at least five checkpoints managing access to the mosque. Most of them have been there since 1994, when an extremist Israeli settler from the nearby illegal settlement of Kiryat Arba opened fire in the building, killing 29 Muslim worshippers and injuring over 100.

SONY DSC

One of the Ibrahimi mosque checkpoints with the mosque in the background [Photo: EAPPI/A.Haywood]

Ecumenical Accompaniers monitor access to holy sites for Palestinians of all faiths across occupied Palestine. In Hebron, as people go to pray, we see frequent ID checks, bag and body searches, and sometimes people being held up or turned back.

Worshippers held up as they exit the Ibrahimi mosque. Photo EAPPIAKaiser

Worshippers held up as they exit the Ibrahimi mosque [Photo: EAPPI/A.Kaiser]

Referring to such restrictions on those wishing to worship, Father Khader says, ”These clearly illegal policies reflect the Israeli violations of international and humanitarian law”. Israel has ratified the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, which includes the right of people to freely practice their religion. Articles 27 and 38 of the Fourth Geneva Convention also oblige Israel, as the occupying power, to protect this right.

“A future of peace begins with a present of justice,” Father Khader writes. “End the occupation, and let us all worship God in truth and justice”.