Israel closes the doors of Bethlehem to the Christians of Gaza

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Drums sound in the courtyard of the parish of the Sagrada Familia in Gaza. The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Pierbattista Pizzaballa, presides over the mini-procession on the way to the temple to celebrate Christmas with his faithful. This year the party is going on ten days in Gaza due to Israel's decision not to grant permission to Christians to visit Bethlehem and Jerusalem claiming "security reasons." Those responsible for the community expect the Jewish state to reconsider and finally grant "a few hundred" temporary permits, but for the moment the Erez passage remains as closed for them as for the vast majority of the two million Gazatis. «The permit is not a simple story, but we are waiting for a definitive answer. Not being able to go to Jerusalem in Easter or at Christmas to Bethlehem attentive to the rights of Christians and this creates many difficulties, ”says Father Gabriel Romanelli, a religious of Argentine origin of the Institute of the Incarnate Word (IVE), which has more than two decades in the Middle East.

The mass lasts more than an hour and a half and the carols resonate throughout the neighborhood of Zeitun, the heart of the old part of the city. The pressure inside and outside the separation fence has pushed the majority of Christians to leave the Strip in recent years and the number has been reduced from about three to a thousand thousand, most Greek Orthodox, but among them there are also 117 Catholics

The children play under a huge Christmas pine tree at whose feet several packages wrapped with colored papers have been placed. They pick up the boxes and wave them trying to guess the gifts they contain. Fuad Ayat leads her little hand, a tattooed hand with crosses. He lifts his sleeve and shows the word "Jesus" tattooed on his forearm. «If they don't let us out, it's not for security reasons, it's a political decision. Where are leaders like Trump now who say they care for Christians in the Middle East? Liars In Gaza, we all suffer the blockade in the same way, whether we are Christians or not, ”Fuad laments with anger.

Israeli authorities last year gave permission to around 700 Gazatian Christians to travel to Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth and other holy cities during these holidays. The announcement made on Thursday by a spokeswoman for Cogat, an agency under the Ministry of Defense, said that this Christmas would be different and that only those over 45 can leave, but to access the Allenby bridge and cross into Jordan, in no case to visit cities in Israel or the West Bank.

Israel's measure is a collective punishment for a minority suffocated by the restriction of movements, with families split for years and young people forced to emigrate to Egypt to try to find a partner and get married. «From the church we try to serve the community, but people want more help, they would like to have real freedom to move and pray to the places of their devotion. The issue of permits is something that makes clear how serious the situation is and how difficult it is to live here, ”says Father Gabriel at the gates of a church located just 100 meters from Samson's tomb. This is the Holy Land and the Holy Family on the way to Egypt passed through Gaza, the faithful remember again and again to claim the importance of their presence here. In this closed complex Christians have a church, school and residence for priests and sisters of the Institute of the Servants of the Lord and the Virgin, the Sisters of Charity of Mother Teresa of Calcutta and the Institute of the Sisters of the Rosary.

After the ceremony there is a children's theater and the auditorium is overflowing. Coffee with cardamom is served and the smell takes over the room. Archbishop Pizzaballa does not lose detail. He attends the work, but also has words for the media: "I hope that one day this situation is over and all Christians can celebrate Christmas together in Bethlehem." A desire far from the reality that the Holy Land lives in 2019. (tagsToTranslate) belen (t) Palestinians (t) Christians

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