Gaza Christians say few Israeli permits granted for Christmas travel

Palestinian border officials said 316 permits had been issued but church leaders said they had requested 800 such permits

A Christian Palestinian couple riding an auto rickshaw leaves Gaza Strip through Israeli Erez crossing heading to Bethlehem to attend Christmas celebrations, in the northern Gaza Strip December 24, 2019. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
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Fewer than half of Christians from Gaza who sought Israeli permits to visit holy cities such as Bethlehem and Jerusalem at Christmas have so far had their applications granted, members of the small community and Palestinian officials said on Tuesday.

Israel had said on Sunday it would admit Christians from the Gaza Strip, a territory it keeps under blockade, reversing a December 12 announcement that barred them on security grounds - a departure from its usual Christmas policy.

On Tuesday, Christmas Eve, Palestinian border officials said 316 permits had been issued for Christians to leave Gaza for Jerusalem and in Bethlehem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Church leaders said they had requested 800 such permits.

Gaza has around 1,000 Christians, most of them from the Greek Orthodox denomination who celebrate Christmas on Jan. 7, amid a mainly Muslim population of 2 million Palestinians.

"They issued permits for old people, not the young," said Haifa Assalfiti, 62, before she crossed the Erez border terminal into Israel en route to Bethlehem with her husband.

"My son, my daughter and my daughter-in-law didn't get permits. They are at home angry," she told Reuters.

A spokeswoman for Cogat, the Israeli liaison agency to the Palestinian territories, did not immediately return a call for comment.

Israel tightly restricts movements out of the Gaza Strip, a coastal territory controlled by Hamas Islamists who are deemed a terrorist group by Israel and Western powers.

Last year, ahead of Christmas Day on December 25, Israel granted permits for close to 700 Gaza Christians to travel to Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth and other holy cities that draw thousands of pilgrims each holiday season.

Meanwhile, pilgrims from around the world gathered Tuesday in the biblical city of Bethlehem, revered by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus, to celebrate Christmas in the Holy Land.

Thousands of Palestinians and foreigners converged on the "little town" in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, with Christmas Eve festivities taking place in and around the Church of the Nativity.

Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, apostolic administrator of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem and the most senior Roman Catholic official in the Middle East, travelled from the holy city to Bethlehem on Tuesday afternoon.

He was later to lead midnight mass at the church, with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas expected to attend.

Bethlehem is close to Jerusalem, but cut off from the holy city by Israel's separation barrier.