Only in the West Bank do we have Freedom to Worship

Our EAs this year provided protective presence and monitored the human rights situation throughout the Easter celebrations. This is the final account from our EAs sharing from Easter 2014 in Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

by Liam, Bethlehem team

God sent his son to Bethlehem to get people to love God…but he didn’t say anyone needed permission”

As the 52nd EAPPI team in Bethlehem, we found our first week in placement coincided with Easter; a momentous occasion for Christians around the world but especially so for those living in the Holy Land. We were walking not far from our house, by ‘Ayda refugee camp, when a woman called out to us from her car.

“Hello! You are the new team; you must come to my house. My name is Antoinette. You like coffee? I make you coffee! You like cake? I make you cake too!”

As we have quickly found, one thing Palestinians are not in short supply of is hospitality. Here, sharing tea and coffee is a declaration of friendship. How could we refuse such a kind offer? Sitting in her house, we were introduced to her brother and sister-in-law, her nieces and nephews, their children and offered two types of cake, particular to Easter: ka’ek bi ajwa and ka’ak bi ma’moul

We spoke with Antoinette Knezevich on Thursday  April 17, the day before Good Friday, and discovered she was still waiting for her permit to be able to travel to Jerusalem for Easter celebrations. Antoinette used to teach at Schmitt College just outside of the Old City in East Jerusalem but, when the Separation Barrier was built by the Israelis; she was no longer permitted to drive to work and is not physically able to walk the distances required to pass through Checkpoint 300 – which cuts Bethlehem off from Jerusalem though they are a mere 7kms (or 4.4 miles) away from each other. Now she lives with her brother and his family, close to ‘Ayda refugee camp, with the Separation Barrier and its cameras looking into their kitchen.

The Permit Lottery

Cameras on the separation barrier look directly into Antoinette's window. Photo EAPPI/L. Hilton.

Cameras on the separation barrier look directly into Antoinette’s window. Photo EAPPI/L. Hilton.

Antoinette described how, before the permit system, she used to attend St. George’s Cathedral, the Anglican church in Jerusalem, and tended to the garden there:

“My husband and I were members of the church…my husband had a British passport because his father [Alexander Antonio Knesevich) was the first British Consul to Gaza during the British Mandate for Palestine”.

As is Antoinette’s case, if you have a Palestinian ID, Israel requires you have a permit even if you have an international passport. She continued:

“But since the building of the Wall I cannot anymore go to Jerusalem and to the church there. So flowers now make me sad. Can you imagine?”

Antoinette explained the process of applying for permits to worship:

“We are catholic and the priest took all the names and gave them to the Israelis and some got permits and some not. The husband might but not the wife – you see what they do?”

Individuals cannot apply for worship permits and are “awarded” permits much akin to a lottery yet preventing people access to worship is in contravention of International Humanitarian Law. Her brother and his wife succeeded but Antoinette did not. Antoinette questioned us:

“Since Jesus was here, we have been here. Do you need permission to visit the Church by your government? Where’s the justice?”

Two EAs converse with Antoinette. Photo EAPPI/L. Hilton,

Two EAs converse with Antoinette. Photo EAPPI/L. Hilton.

The Catholic Church in Bethlehem requested 5000 permits for the Easter period and received just 700 from the Israeli District Coordination Office, which were given across families forcing them to make the decision between only some of the family visiting the holy sites in Jerusalem or the whole family forfeiting the possibility. Antoinette decried:

“God sent his son to Bethlehem to get people to love God…but he didn’t say anyone needed permission”.

Freedom to Worship

Antoinette told of how Muslims and Christians live peacefully with each other, with Muslim families even sharing Santa gifts at Christmas and coloured eggs at Easter:

“They respect us and we respect them. Near my home are Muslim neighbours and we have no problems. The only problem is the occupation.”

Stood on her balcony, looking out towards the stark grey wall with its imposing watching presence; Antoinette shared:

“When they built the wall, it was like they built it on my heart…too heavy”. Her gaze dropped then and she looked deep in thought then quietly but firmly said: “It is like they took me up from the root of myself and threw me away”.

Antoinette points out the separation wall in front of her home. The wall now cuts her off from accessing Jerusalem. Photo EAPPI/L. Hilton,

Antoinette points out the separation wall in front of her home. The wall now cuts her off from accessing Jerusalem. Photo EAPPI/L. Hilton,

We worked Checkpoint 300 on the morning of Holy Saturday, greeting and wishing a “Happy Easter” to those passing through. Later in the afternoon, we saw many of the same people in Beit Jala for the parade to welcome the miraculous light from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. When we asked why they were in Beit Jala and not the Old City, we were told how the Israeli administration had put the Christian Quarter on lockdown so, despite being some of the lucky few to receive a permit, they were still not allowed to enter the holy sites and engage in worship.

One man said: “Only here do we have freedom to worship”.

Tourists & Palestinian Christians alike restricted, yet hope remains

Our EAs this year provided protective presence and monitored the human rights situation throughout the Easter celebrations. This is the 3rd account from our EAs sharing from Easter 2014 in Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

Holy Saturday was full of joyful celebrations as Local Christians waited for the arrival of the Holy Fire to be passed on throughout the world. Photo EAPPI/J. Valkama.

Holy Saturday was full of joyful celebrations as Local Christians waited for the arrival of the Holy Fire to be passed on throughout the world. Photo EAPPI/J. Valkama.

by Juhani, Jerusalem Ar Ram team

At the plaza of the Holy Sepulchre Church there’s a group of Christian pilgrims standing – a very squashed crowd in the middle of the steel fences. It’s the Holy Saturday just before Easter and they are waiting for the Holy Fire ceremony to start. The fire is lit in a place where they believe Jesus was crucified and buried. So for the Christians it’s a very special and holy place. From there the fire is passed throughout the Christian world, from candle to candle.

 

There are dozens of Israeli police and guards moving around the plaza, looking nervous and suspicious. The pilgrim group, on the other hand, is not able to move. The sun is parching and their waiting just goes on.

 “It’s the biggest wish in my life to be here”, says Janus, a pilgrim from Romania. “It’s not pleasant to be waiting like this, but in my heart I always knew that one day I must come here.”

At last, half an hour before the ceremony starts, they open the fences and let the people into the church. They are a lucky, but a very small band. When they’re in, the plaza of the Holy Sepulchre remains almost completely empty. Even though it is one of the most important Christian celebrations, one would think that there aren’t very many people interested.

The truth is different. All roads leading to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre are cut off. Everywhere around the Old City of Jerusalem there are great number of local Christians and pilgrims behind the barriers trying to participate in Easter celebrations, but they are hampered by the Israeli police. The ceremony starts at 2pm, but the streets are closed already at 9am. No explanations are given by the Israeli troops. There’s a small tourist group near the Jaffa gate reading their maps and even they are evicted by the police.

The restrictions of Easter go even further. Already in the Palm Sunday procession it is clear that not all who would like to be there are present. There is just handful of Palestinian Christians from the occupied West Bank in Jerusalem because the permits have been very difficult to get. There is a simultaneous Jewish celebration too, Passover, that has tightened the restrictions for the Christians and Muslims even more, especially in Jerusalem. Also the Separation Barrier divides Palestinian Christians from accessing Jerusalem and Bethlehem freely. It’s a very concrete reminder of the severe restrictions of Palestinians mobility and lack of their human rights.

The separation barrier is illegal according to the International Court of Justice and in 2012 US State Department published a report about Israeli policies restricting freedom of worship for Palestinian Christians and Muslims. The report says:

“Strict closures and curfews imposed by the Israeli government negatively affected residents’ ability to practice their religion at holy sites” and that “the separation barrier significantly impeded Bethlehem-area Christians from reaching the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and made visits to Christian sites in Bethany (al-Eizariya) and Bethlehem difficult for Palestinian Christians who live on the Jerusalem side of the barrier.”

So the long-term conflict between the occupying state and the occupied is visible also on Easter at least through the fences, barriers and permits declined. The ongoing peace negotiations are not believed to make any significant results, but the hope lives on.

“I’m going to pray”, replies Janus when asked what he is going to do when he gets into the church. “I’m going to pray for peace. What could be more important?”