Israel steals Christmas: clergy denied entry to occupied territories
Bethlehem – Ma'an – Israeli travel prohibitions put a damper on this year's Christmas celebrations as Christian clergy were unable to reach their congregations in the occupied Palestinian territories.
In late October the Israeli interior ministry cancelled the multiple-entry visas that many foreign clergy possess, issuing instead single-entry visas, and sometimes completely denying access to the very birthplace of Christianity.
The Our Lady of Annunciation Catholic church in the West Bank city of Ramallah cancelled its Christmas celebrations completely, because the priest, Jordanian national Seres Lalkhlisat, could not return to the West Bank from Jordan, where he went to visit his family.
"A church without a priest; it's very hard. People call saying 'we want to hold a funeral, but there is no priest to conduct the funeral," said Anan Abu Saadeh, a teacher at the school affiliated with Our Lady of Annunciation.
Saadeh said Lalkhlisat has worked at two West Bank congregations since 2004, and used to travel back and forth from Jordan freely on his multiple-entry visa, which now has an 'X' drawn through it.
"We are waiting," said Saadeh, "they are always saying 'you have to wait' …they have still not given us a real reason."
Israeli Interior Ministry spokesperson Sabine Haddad told the Associated Press, "According to a request by security officials, we restricted the visas of the clergy." Yet this reasoning leaves Palestinian parishioners like Saadeh puzzled. "He is not a political man; he is not doing something bad," he said of the Priest.
The grassroots Campaign for the Right of Entry/Re-Entry to the Occupied Palestinian Territory says that clergy are only a few of the "tens of thousands of ordinary foreign passport holders of Palestinian and non-Palestinian origin who wish to be with their families, work or study, as well as tourists and pilgrims."
Palestine's small Christian population is shrinking, and Saadeh attributed some the much-discussed 'Christian flight' to Israeli restrictions that limit freedom of worship. "For Christian Palestinians, it's hard to see churches closing, so people are leaving," he said.
Israel controls all but one of the entry points in to the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The one Palestinian-controlled crossing, at Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, has been closed since the June due to an Israeli-led international blockade.
Amnesty International estimates that by 2006, at least 120,000 families of various religious affiliations have been denied the right to be together by Israeli travel restrictions.