Israeli military officials granted permits to thousands of Palestinian Christians, including dozens from the Gaza Strip, according to an Israeli spokesperson – this marks the largest number of permits granted since 2000, when the second Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation began.
Among the estimated 35,000 Christian worshippers from around the world who gathered in Jerusalem on Saturday and Sunday were several hundred Coptic Christians from Egypt, who were in attendance for the first time since the 1970s, when the late Coptic pope, Shenouda III, issued a decree banning travel to Jerusalem to protest Israel's occupation of the Holy City.
After the Coptic pope died on March 17th of this year, some Egyptian Christians decided to travel to Jerusalem through Israel, via newly-reinstated flight routes. But Coptic church authorities challenged the pilgrims, saying that the travel ban was still in effect. According to Egyptian state media outlet, MENA, the Church of St. Helena in Jerusalem denied entry to the Egyptian Christians, saying that they were in defiance of the church's orders.
Palestinian Christians who want to go to Jerusalem on Easter have to apply for a permit through their church several weeks in advance. The churches then submit the lists to the Israeli military authorities, who vet the lists for young men under age 35, or anyone with a family member in Israeli prison. Those people are denied permits, while the rest are allowed entry into Jerusalem for a single day only. Even with the permit, however, Palestinians are frequently denied entry at the Israeli military checkpoint leading into Jerusalem without being given a reason.
Earlier this week, a spokesman for the Palestinian Authority, Nabil Shaath, criticized the Israeli military occupation, saying, "Israel's policies are driving out Palestinian Christians and Muslims, who are forced to seek a dignified life beyond the confines of the cruel reality of walls and occupation in Palestine, the Holy Land. In so doing, Israel is threatening the fabric of our society".
Shaath added, "Israel's illegal Wall is an insult to the rich history of the Holy Land. Indeed, this colonial regime constitutes an assault on more than 2000 years of Christian history in the Holy Land for it disconnects, for the first time in history, the holy cities of Bethlehem and Jerusalem.”