Peter Beaumont in Jerusalem
The limestone stairs of the Nuns’ Ascent are glassy-slick from the countless feet that have polished them. Descending steeply, they emerge by the Chapel Sanctuaries of the Flagellation and Condemnation on the Via Dolorosa, the start of the route which – tradition says – Christ took to his crucifixion.
On Good Friday, the stairs are packed with foreign pilgrims walking the Stations of the Cross. Among them is a large party from Serbia carrying crosses, who begin their jostling descent to join the milling crowds below. They slow down to pass an Israeli border police barrier on the stairs, one of a number along the route. It lets them pass without remark.
The crowd on the steps thins momentarily. As it does, an elderly Palestinian man in a white headscarf descends stiffly. Alone among all the foreign pilgrims he is stopped, checked by the police and sent down another street. It is not clear if he is a resident of the Old City or even a Christian.
It is an experience, however, familiar to many local Palestinian Christians in Holy Week – which culminates on Easter Sunday – especially those from towns and parishes of the Occupied Territories. Uniquely among would-be pilgrims, Palestinian Christians from the West Bank and Gaza are required to seek permission to travel to the Old City, a lottery in which it is never clear how many permits a family will receive, if any. Last week Christian leaders complained that – as in recent years – they had faced either obstruction from the Israeli authorities or a lack of travel permits preventing many from celebrating Easter in Jerusalem’s Old City
It is not only local Christian leaders who have been critical. A US state department report three years ago also highlighted the problems of Palestinian Christians in reaching key religious sites, a complaint reportedly echoed by a recent internal EU document.
On Saturday, Israeli police refused to let the UN’s peace envoy to the Middle East, other diplomats and a crowd of Palestinians pass through a barricade. The UN envoy, Robert Serry, said he had waited with Italian, Norwegian and Dutch diplomats for up to half an hour, crushed against a barricade by a crowd, while Israeli officers ignored his appeals to speak with a superior. Israel dismissed the complaint, calling it an attempt to inflate a “micro-incident”.
This year is doubly sensitive, because in just over a month Pope Francis will visit the Holy Land on his own pilgrimage, in which he will celebrate mass in Bethlehem on the West Bank – a fact that has refocused the spotlight on freedom of worship for Palestinian Christians.
It is sensitive, too, because of a series of controversial incidents during last year’s Holy Week. Then Orthodox worshippers complained of a heavy-handed Israeli police presence at the Holy Fire ceremony on Easter Saturday at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, with many worshippers denied access. In a separate incident several Egyptian diplomats complained of being assaulted by police. All of which has served – say some Palestinian Christians – to discourage even some of those with permission to go to Jerusalem from attending the Easter celebrations.
On Wednesday of Holy Week, I meet Father Firas Aridah, priest of St Joseph’s parish in Ramallah on the West Bank at the Latin patriarchate. “Jerusalem is the city of the Cross,” he explains. “Christians want to come here during Holy Week. The Israeli authorities have said they are giving more permits this year to come from the West Bank, but the point is that Christians should be able to come here without permits. I’ve spoken to people in Bethlehem. Most say they still haven’t received their permits, and among those who have, it is only a couple of members of the family. It may be those who don’t have them now will get them one or two months later, as happened last year.”
This year 20,000 permits have been issued by the Israeli authorities for the 50,000 Palestinian Christians, in a system Israel says is designed to prevent dangerous overcrowding and maintain security. Earlier this month, in a submission to a court case on policing of Easter events, Israel’s police service reiterated that concern: “As every year, there will be roadblocks around the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and participants’ entry will be supervised, to prevent a disaster.”
While many accept the need to police religious events, what they challenge is how it is done, which many argue discriminates against Palestinian Christians. Palestinian church leaders last week questioned the reasons for the restrictions. Among them was the Orthodox archbishop Atallah Hanna, who criticised the Israeli authorities for imposing what he claimed were obstacles on Orthodox worshippers wishing to enter the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
The complaints about the difficulty of worshipping come as denominational leaders concede that Palestinian Christianity in the Old City, in particular, is in a continuing decline. In 1944 the Old City had some 30,000 Christians living within its walls. Today the Christian population of the whole city is now 11,000, with one estimate suggesting that within five years that number could drop by half.
Archbishop Fouad Twal, the Latin patriarch, last week blamed the decline of Christians from 20% to 2.5% on both demographics and exhaustion. “Christian families have fewer children and there is more emigration by those who can’t face the situation here. And those who are leaving are the young people who don’t see a future despite years of [peace] negotiations.”
On Palm Sunday, he adds, there were people he was waiting to greet who never made it through. And they were not alone. Of the 10 Palestinian Scout bands who had planned to be in the Old City that Sunday, only five managed to arrive. And what many Palestinian Christians most fear is that their traditional connection with Jerusalem and its religious sites is being gradually eroded – not least in the last half a decade which has seen new police restrictions around the Holy Sepulchre on Easter Saturday.
Bassem Khoury is an Orthodox Christian, a pharmacist and former Palestinian economics minister. “Palestinian Christians have been celebrating their traditions in Jerusalem for hundreds of years,” he said last week. “Over the past five years or so, however, there has been systematic abuse [of our freedom of worship].” That culminated controversially in last year’s ceremony of Holy Fire, which, Orthodox Christians complain, saw many worshippers blocked from entering the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, leading Israel’s supreme court this year to insist on unhindered access.
Khoury said that last year “there were more police than worshippers” for the Holy Fire, an eastern Christian ceremony on Easter Saturday that produces the flame which is then carried to parishes around the Orthodox world to mark Christ’s resurrection. “Some of the police were smoking in the Holy Sepulchre. They should be more respectful in that place,” Khoury said.
There is something more Christians fear is being lost – a tradition with meaning beyond the spiritual. Writing last week for the Independent Catholic News service, Rifat Kassis, a member of the Palestine Israel Ecumenical Forum, summed up that feeling. “As a little boy, I remember travelling to Jerusalem with my late father along the old road – a trip that took many hours due to the ‘no-man’s-zone’ that forbade us from directly accessing the divided city.
“Despite the obstacles that existed even then, I remember going to Jerusalem as a deeply happy event. It meant eating the sweets we couldn’t find in our village, and visiting the holy places we’d only heard about in school and church.
“When the first intifada broke out in 1987, Jerusalem was sealed off to those of us who lived in the so-called West Bank, and we had to obtain special permits in order to enter the city. Legally, visiting Jerusalem became impossible for me; because I was a past political prisoner, I was put on some kind of state blacklist, and so the Israeli authorities wouldn’t grant me a permit.
“Since 2002, I have not returned to Jerusalem. My 29-year-old son, Dafer, has never visited it at all.”
On Saturday, for the Holy Fire, a large section of the Old City was blocked off by barriers that sealed off the upper section of the Via Dolorosa and the Christian quarter. In a restaurant, two pilgrims – a German man and an Iraqi woman, resident in the US – sat wearily down to eat. “I came here for pilgrimage,” the woman said with a mixture of sadness and anger, “and I haven’t been able to see the Holy Sepulchre.”
On Sunday morning it emerged that Israeli police had prevented the UN’s peace envoy to the Middle East, Robert Serry, other diplomats and a crowd of Palestinians from attending the Holy Fire ceremony on Saturday.
Serry said in a statement Israeli security officers had stopped a group of Palestinian worshippers and diplomats in a procession near the church, “claiming they had orders to that effect”.
Serry added in separate remarks to Reuters he had waited with Italian, Norwegian and Dutch diplomats for up to a half hour, crushed by a crowd against a barricade, while Israeli officers ignored his appeals to speak with a superior.
Serry accused the Israeil authorities of “unacceptable behaviour” and demanded in his statement that all parties “respect the right of religious freedom”.
An Israeli foreign ministry spokesman rejected Serry’s version of events and accused him of displaying “a serious problem of judgment”.