Father Romanelli notes that for now only an “announcement” has been made. Hopefully, words will be followed by deeds. This year no age restriction is expected. Gaza Catholics are waiting for Patriarch Pizzaballa for the celebrations. A solemn Mass will be held “for those unable to get an exit permit.”
Gaza (AsiaNews) – This year, Israel has decided to grant hundreds of exit permits for the Christmas holidays to Gaza Christians.
This is “good” news as well as a “positive sign” for Christians living in the Strip, although for now, “it is only an announcement”. Hopefully it will soon become something “concrete,” said Fr Gabriel Romanelli, an Argentine priest of the Incarnate Word and pastor of the parish of the Holy Family, speaking to AsiaNews.
If confirmed, Gaza Christians will be able to visit friends and family in Israel, Palestine, and Jordan.
“The good thing is that, according to what we’ve heard, Israel plans to grant a permit to all age groups, not only to children and older adults as they did in the past,” said the clergyman. “It now seems that people 16 to 35 years will get the green light with at least 500 permits for all age groups on the occasion of Christmas.”
If this happens about half of all local Christians (about a thousand), from all denominations, will be able to travel to Israel and the West Bank for the holidays, taking also advantage of Israel’s loosened COVID-19 restrictions.
Similar concessions were made in the past, but everything was put on hold last year because of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Travel was further restricted following the brief war last May between Israel and Gaza’s ruling force, Hamas. Eventually, the tight grip around the Strip was reduced thanks to Egyptian mediation.
The Gaza Strip has been often referred to as the largest open-air prison in the world, home to two million people living on the threshold of survival with unemployment at 60 per cent, and poverty at 80 per cent.
This affects local Christian families, about 300 in all for about a thousand people, including just over a hundred Catholics, 34 per cent of whom have no source of income.
In the past, the Orthodox Church handled permits, but since 2016 the Catholic Church has also dealt with the issue of permits for Christmas and Easter.
It is up to the Israeli military at the Erez checkpoint to evaluate whether to grant a permit on religious grounds. However, most of the times, applications have been turned down, especially for young people under the age of 35.
The Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), a body within Israel’s Defence Ministry responsible for Palestinian civil affairs, explains that Palestinians with permits will be allowed to visit the holy places and relatives living in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth and other places in the Holy Land.
Access to the holy city will also be made easier for West Bank Christians while 200 Gaza residents will be able to travel to Jordan via Israel.
“The permits will run from 24 December to 19 January,” Fr Romanelli explained. “We hope that they issue it for a few days earlier because celebrations will be already underway before Christmas Eve, perhaps by 21 and 22 December.”
Meanwhile, Gaza Catholics are waiting for the visit by the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, from 17 to 19 December, for the traditional celebrations and festivities.
“We are planning some events with the patriarch, including a solemn Mass, a visit to families and the school,” Fr Romanelli noted, “then a Mass for those unable to get an exit permit.”