Due to safety concerns, Israel is placing restrictions on the Easter ceremonies in Jerusalem while also canceling visas for Christians from Gaza to participate. The restrictions have raised criticism in the Christian community.
Israel is being criticized for canceling approximately 739 visas issued to Christians from Gaza to celebrate Easter in Jerusalem.
Gaza’s Saint Porphyrios Orthodox Church posted an announcement on Twitter on Monday.
This comes after the Israeli police announced they would limit the number of worshipers in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem during Orthodox Easter ceremonies on Saturday. 1,800 people will be allowed inside the church this year, and another 1,200 outside. Additional checkpoints around the Old City will also restrict access to the area around the church. The restrictions came as a necessary safety requirement after a professional analysis by the safety engineer on behalf of the churches.
The police statement cited a deadly stampede during Lag B’omer at Mt. Meron two years ago when 45 people were killed, underscoring the risks of large crowds of worshipers gathering in restricted spaces.
The Israeli police were also criticized for stating their intention to locate 200 officers inside the church building during the ceremony.
“I want to emphasize that our main concern is the safety of the pilgrims that are coming to the Old City. The numbers were provided by the safety engineer,” who assessed the church, said Yoram Segal from the Jerusalem district police.
“We understand the feeling, the religious feelings of people that want to participate in this Holy Light ceremony. But unfortunately, not everyone can enter the church because of the safety regulation,” he added.
Segal said the ceremony will be broadcast on screens in the Old City and that the force is “doing our best” to ensure the flame can travel onwards to Christian communities beyond Jerusalem.
The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, the Custody of the Holy Land, and the Armenian Patriarchate released a joint statement declaring their intention to ignore the safety restrictions.
“We shall continue to uphold the Status Quo customs, and the ceremony will be held as customary for two millennia and all who wish to worship with us are invited to attend,” the statement read.
“After many attempts made in goodwill, we are not able to coordinate with the Israeli authorities as they are enforcing unreasonable restrictions,” Father Mattheos Siopis from the Greek Orthodox Church told the media. “These heavy-handed restrictions will limit access to… the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and to the Holy Light ceremony,” he told journalists.
With Ramadan, Easter, and Passover coinciding, restrictions were placed at other sites as well. Non-Muslims are prohibited from entering the Temple Mount for the last ten days of Ramadan.
It is unknown how many permits for Christians from Gaza if any were issued. According to Al Mezan Center for Human Rights, about 1,000 Palestinian Christians from Gaza applied to the Israeli authorities for a travel permit to go to Jerusalem.
In December 2022, the Palestinian Civil Affairs Authority Israel provided Israel with a list of names of 900 Christians requesting visas to visit Bethlehem for the Christmas holiday. Only about 650 were approved. The remaining 250 were denied for security reasons.
According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, there are some 177,000 Christians in Israel, a growth of 1.5% from last year. But in Gaza, the Christian population has plummeted from about 3,000 a decade ago to an estimated 1,000 today, most of them Greek Orthodox.