Tough road to Jerusalem for Palestinian Christians

Some Christian Palestinians say their fellow Christians emigrated partly because they grew weary of living in occupied land marred by recurring violence and the vagaries of Israel's restrictions.

Palestinian youth scouts lead the traditional Palm Sunday procession from the Mount of Olives to Jerusalem's Old City.
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JERUSALEM // If he could, Ibrahim Khoury would bring his family to this city every Sunday.

But in his way are Israel's walls and bureaucracy that restrict him and other Christian Palestinians from entering Jerusalem.

Unlike the 280,000 Palestinians who hold Jerusalem residency, he - like most Palestinians from the West Bank, Christian as well as Muslim - must get Israel's permission to visit the city that is his cultural and spiritual home.

But yesterday, the Khoury family was part of a group of Roman Catholics from Ramallah allowed in to celebrate Palm Sunday.

Although a joyful experience a week before Easter, it was also bittersweet for Mr Khoury: he lamented the obstacles to visiting his most important holy sites such as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Stations of the Cross.

"Israel tells the radio and the newspapers that there is freedom of religion here, but in reality, it's not like this at all," said Mr Khoury, 68, an architect who lives in Ramallah. It was his first visit to Jerusalem in more than a year.

Like Christian communities in Egypt and Iraq, those in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories have dwindled as people moved away.

Some Christian Palestinians say their fellow Christians emigrated partly because they grew weary of living in occupied land marred by recurring violence and the vagaries of Israel's restrictions, which often limit their religious freedoms.

"It's a problem of instability," said Adnan Musallam, a professor of history at Bethlehem University and an expert on Palestinian Christians.

"We have a disintegrating community, and it's not only Christians - Palestinian Muslims are experiencing the same problems," he said.

There are fewer than 60,000 Palestinian Christians in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, territories occupied by Israel since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

Members of the 13 Christian denominations here now collectively form less than 2 per cent of the Palestinian population. Their numbers have continued to fall since Israel's creation in 1948. That was when as many as 60,000 Christian Palestinians were expelled or fled because of the fighting, part of a wave of 750,000 Palestinians who became refugees.

Mr Khoury fled in 1948 to the West Bank from his home in Jaffa, now virtually a suburb of Tel Aviv.He and his family since have seen their ability to enter Jerusalem eroded year by year.

Last year, Israeli soldiers held them up at a checkpoint for two hours before they could enter Jerusalem for Palm Sunday.

By the time they were allowed to pass, the annual procession, which Christians from around the world take part in to commemorate Jesus' entry into the city, was over.

"They made us wait outside and it was terribly cold, and we still didn't make it," said one of Mr Khoury's daughter, Rabab, 22.

The Khoury family arrived on time to yesterday's procession, which started on the Mount of Olives and made its way to the historic Old City. They were part of a convoy of 20 buses transporting Christian Palestinians from Ramallah's Holy Family Catholic Church. Its clergymen asked Israel for 2,000 permits to bring Palestinians from Ramallah into Jerusalem.

About 600 were granted.

Costa Bahu learnt yesterday he was denied a Jerusalem entry permit. A drummer, he was supposed to take part in a Catholic youth band that led the marchers through the city.

"It's hard because all my friends will be there; I practised for a month for this," said the 16-year-old native of Ramallah.

Still, friction with Israel may foster interfaith solidarity among Palestinians. Christians, for example, played prominent roles in several nationalist Palestinian factions.

That helped explain why such sectarian tensions here are far less pronounced than in countries such as Egypt and Iraq, said Bernard Sabella, a Palestinian parliamentarian from Jerusalem and expert on Palestinian Christians.

"Specifically in Palestine, the Muslim-Christian issue is not an issue," he said. "It's not segregated here like in other countries. Here you find Christians and Muslims living side-by-side."

Earlier this month, 80 prominent Christian Palestinians sent an open letter to Israel's ambassador to the US, Michael Oren, condemning an editorial he wrote in the Wall Street Journal. Mr Oren attributed the emigration of Christian Palestinians from the occupied territories to strife with Muslims.

"Your attempt to blame the difficult reality that Palestinian Christians face on Palestinian Muslims is a shameful manipulation of the facts intended to mask the damage that Israel has done to our community," said the letter, which was published by the unofficial Palestinian news agency Maan.

Despite such displays of unity, however, Mr Sabella said Christian Palestinians are still emigrating, preferring the comforts of Europe and America to Israel's practices of home demolitions, land confiscation and military control in the territories.

But walking through Jerusalem's streets yesterday, Mr Khoury seemed lost in the moment. In fact, he was all smiles.

"It feels great to be here," he said.