Despite Israeli restrictions, Christians celebrate Holy Flame

Palestinian Christians say they face harsh Israeli restrictions that prevent them from celebrating their faith.

Worshippers in the courtyard light their candles from each other
Worshippers in the courtyard of the Church of Saint Porphyrius in Gaza light candles from each other on April 15, 2023 [Abdelhakim Abu Riash/Al Jazeera]

Jerusalem/Gaza – The Christians of Palestine celebrated the Sabbath of Light on Saturday in occupied East Jerusalem, Gaza and other Palestinian cities amid strict restrictions imposed by Israeli authorities.

After the Holy Light flooded the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City of Jerusalem, its flames were sent to the city of Ramallah and many other Palestinian towns, as well as to several neighbouring Arab countries and other European countries.

For the second year in a row, Israeli forces imposed strict restrictions on Sabbath of Light celebrations in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, tightening procedures and closures and preventing worshippers from reaching the church.

Videos showing Israeli soldiers beating young men, physically struggling with women, and pushing clerics who were heading to the church went viral on social media platforms.

In Jerusalem, William Khoury, former deputy head of the Palestinian Orthodox Club and a member of the Arab Orthodox Christian community, told Al Jazeera that what happened was “nothing new”.

“For more than 10 years, we’ve been suffering from the occupation authorities placing metal barriers, police, and armed soldiers on the day of the Holy Fire,” he said.

Holy Saturday in Jerusalem
Christians being prevented from reaching the Church of the Holy Sepulchre during the Sabbath of Light in Jerusalem [Faiz Abu Rmeleh/Al Jazeera]

“This is the holiest day for Christians in this holy land. As Orthodox Christians and Arabs, we tell the world that this city is ours, this church ours us and this holy occasion is ours as well. No one has the right to disrupt our celebrations on this day.

“We are Palestinians and we take pride in this identity,” Khoury said.

Fadi Halabi, a security analyst based in Jerusalem, told Al Jazeera the dozens of checkpoints erected by Israeli forces prevented nearly 80 percent of Palestinian Christians from reaching the Church of Holy Sepulchre.

“Israel’s restrictions on Palestinian Christians are not new and are part of the unfortunate decisions taken by the country’s right-wing government,” Halabi said.

“They are part of the deliberate decades-long policies to erase other local communities in Jerusalem in an effort to try and show that Jerusalem is exclusive to a Jewish identity.”

Halabi said that, in recent years, Israeli attacks on and vandalism of Christian sites and churches have increased “with little or no efforts to arrest the perpetrators clearly filmed on security surveillance cameras”.

Christians once comprised 20 percent of Jerusalem’s population – they now account for less than 2 percent.

Fewer Palestinians allowed from Gaza to Jerusalem

In Gaza, the Greek Orthodox community celebrated Holy Saturday in the Church of Saint Porphyrius in the Zaitoon neighbourhood of the Old City of Gaza. Dozens of families attended the ceremonies of the outpouring of Christ’s light according to the Bible. Celebrations began with a display by the scouts and the bishop’s welcome.

Altar boys holding candles, crosses and icons in the church
In Gaza, the Greek Orthodox Christian community celebrated Holy Saturday in the Church of Saint Porphyrius [Abdelhakim Abu Riash/Al Jazeera]

Khader Nasrawi, 45, a freelance graphic designer and father of two, told Al Jazeera that he and his family love to celebrate Easter and the resurrection of Jesus.

“This occasion is not a just special occasion for Christians, but it shows the sanctity of Palestine, Jerusalem, and Jesus Christ,” Nasrawi told Al Jazeera.

Although Nasrawi and his family have a special affection for this holiday, he said that, as Christians living in Gaza, their joy is incomplete.

“Every year we face difficulties in leaving the Gaza Strip and obtaining permits from the Israeli side to go, whether to Bethlehem, the Church of the Nativity or the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, to attend the Holy Light ceremonies,” Nasrawi said.

According to Palestinian news agency Wafa, Israeli authorities have ramped up their restrictions on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre this year, limiting the number who can attend the Holy Sabbath to only 1,800 people.

Every year, Christians in Gaza fill out applications in hopes the authorities will allow them to attend the holy days in Jerusalem or Bethlehem. Usually, there are only a few permits given, but this year Wafa said there were fewer than ever, leaving many Christians in Gaza heartbroken.

Nasrawi was given a permit to go to Jerusalem this Easter, but he didn’t go as his wife and children weren’t given permits.

Holy Saturday in Gaza
Holy Saturday in Gaza [Abdelhakim Abu Riash/Al Jazeera]

“My wife hasn’t gotten a permit for three years, and my children didn’t get one; there’s no joy in going to the celebration without them,” he said.

“Easter is an occasion to emphasise the holy message of Christ … a message of love and peace for the world. I wish the world that the coming days will be days of peace, goodness, and love,” he added.

Fouad Ayad, 33, said that for him this Easter is one of the worst, as he was very much hoping to obtain a permit to celebrate in Jerusalem.

“It is true the situation in Jerusalem is tense and does not encourage me to go, but I am tired of being prevented from visiting for several years for no reason, despite my being of Jerusalemite origin,” said Ayad, who is father to a one-year-old daughter and works in a school.

“I came here to celebrate Holy Saturday with the other Christian families in Gaza,” Ayad told Al Jazeera.

“It is known that the Christian community is a minority in Gaza, and they face great difficulties in movement and travel through the Israeli crossings,” he said, adding that he has been trying to get a permit for his Egyptian wife since they got married three years ago, to no avail.

Worshippers inside the Greek Orthodox church in the Old City of Gaza
‘Easter is an occasion to emphasise the holy message of Christ of love and peace for the world,’ said Fouad Ayad [Abdelhakim Abu Riash/Al Jazeera]

“There are big complications at every step here, but we hope things get easier and the years to come will be better,” he added.

For her part, his wife, 24-year-old Angie Ayad, told Al Jazeera that she finds the Easter atmosphere beautiful and spiritual in the churches of the Gaza Strip.

“Since I was in Egypt, I always wanted to visit Jerusalem with my family and attend the Easter celebrations there, but this is all very difficult because of the Israeli complications and exceptional conditions in the Palestinian territory,” she said.

“I tried to apply for a visitor permit since I got married and moved to the Gaza Strip, but this also seems difficult.”

Despite that, Angie Ayad said she enjoys living in Gaza, contrary to what she expected and saw in the media. “Life here is beautiful and simple, the people are simple, and I am happy to be here with my child and my husband.”

Twenty-nine-year-old Madonna Ayad, who is also Egyptian, also sees life as beautiful in Gaza “except for the wars”.

The two friends got married and came to Gaza in 2020 and are still waiting to obtain their official identification papers.

Worshippers reading from their hymnals in church
Worshippers at the Holy Sabbath service at the Church of Saint Porphyrius in Gaza on April 16, 2023 [Abdelhakim Abu Riash/Al Jazeera]

Madonna Ayad sees the festive atmosphere of Easter in Gaza as very close to the celebrations in Egypt.

“Usually, Christians can go from Egypt to Jerusalem and Bethlehem to pray normally, but it is difficult to obtain a visitor’s permit from Gaza without a family reunion and a large set of conditions,” she said.

Madonna Ayad’s husband, 34-year-old Imad Ayad – who is related to Fouad – told Al Jazeera the problem Christians face in Gaza and the rest of the Palestinian territory is simply that they are “Palestinians”.

“What happened in Jerusalem yesterday was very sad. It’s a blessed Eid that people wait from year to year to be violently attacked by Israeli forces. It is beyond possibility”.

Elias al-Jilda, a member of the Council of Deputies of the Arab Orthodox Church in Gaza, told Al Jazeera that this year’s Easter celebrations come against the backdrop of great harassment against Christians and Muslims in Jerusalem, such as attacks on worshippers in the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

A view of two hands holding blessing candles against the richly painted ceiling of the church
This year’s Easter celebrations come against the backdrop of great harassment against Christians and Muslims in Jerusalem [Abdelhakim Abu Riash/Al Jazeera]

“There are also racist practices that we saw in the media by Israeli extremists who were spitting on Christian nuns in Jerusalem. This is evidence of the fanaticism and extremism practised by the Israeli occupation, especially by the extremist Israeli government led by [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu.

“These restrictions aim to empty Jerusalem of Christians and Muslims and push them to emigrate outside the country, as is happening, and this is a direct form of religious persecution,” al-Jilda said.

Christians in Gaza, he said, suffer the most from the continued refusal of permits to visit Jerusalem or Bethlehem, where the number of approved permits is always very few.

“This is an intentional ban on exercising our natural right to practice our religious rites, and this is contrary to all international, legal and human laws,” al-Jilda noted.

“We send a message to the international community and advocates of peace and human rights that the persecution of the right to worship in Palestine against Muslims and Christians is unacceptable and needs urgent intervention. Our people have the right to get rid of the occupation and live in dignity and freedom.”

Source: Al Jazeera