Each year thousands of Christians make their way to Jerusalem to celebrate Easter. Israel’s Tourism Ministry expects 125,000 visitors during Holy Week and 300,000 throughout April.
Over the weekend as Catholics and Anglicans celebrated Easter, there were media reports that claimed many Palestinian Christians were being denied entry into Jerusalem for their pilgrimage, claims which Israel strongly denies.
Israel’s Ambassador to the US Michael Oren denounced an article written by US President of World Vision, Richard Stearns as “completely without foundation and libelous against the State of Israel”. Stearns wrote in “A Dark Easter for Palestinian Children”, Washington Post:
“Because of travel restrictions in past years, the vast majority of Christians living in the West Bank have been stopped at checkpoints and prevented from attending one of the most important religious services of the year. Israeli authorities require permits for entering Jerusalem. Local Christians estimate that only 2,000 — 3,000* permits are provided, despite the overwhelming desire among the 50,000 Palestinian Christians to travel from the West Bank and Gaza for the Easter week celebrations in Jerusalem.”
Similarly in Australia, Ruth Pollard wrote in “Stopping all stations Christians bear their faith”, The Age:
“For Palestinian Christians, even the simplest of pilgrimages can be an impossible journey. On Palm Sunday, many Palestinian Christians carrying permits that allowed them to travel from the West Bank into Jerusalem to worship at Easter were stranded at the Qalandia military checkpoint when Israeli solders closed it for two hours… ‘The Israeli occupation affects everyone and everything and prevents us from worshipping as a family and a community during times such as Easter,’ said Dr Sabella.”
In response to Stearns’ article, Israeli Ambassador Oren released the following statement:
“…Israel has provided more than 20,000 permits this year for Palestinian Christians to enter Jerusalem for the Good Friday and Easter holidays. Five-hundred similar permits have also been issued to the remaining Christians of Gaza, though the area is under the control of the terrorist organization Hamas.
With the exception of the very few individuals who have raised security concerns, and not withstanding the measures we must take to protect our citizens, any Christian from the West Bank can reach Jerusalem on Good Friday and Easter. All allegations to the contrary are flagrantly untrue and represent a reckless attempt to defame the Jewish State.
Israel, the only Middle Eastern country with a growing and thriving Christian population, remains committed to maintaining its superb relations with Christian communities worldwide.
Though we face serious and continuing defense challenges, we uphold the principle of free access to the Holy Places to all religions. On this year, as in all previous years, we wish Christians throughout the world a joyous holiday.”
Israeli Ambassador Oren has also recently written an article in the Wall Street Journal in which discusses that while Christians are experiencing persecution throughout the Middle East only in Israel are they thriving. He wrote:
“Their share [Middle East Christians] of the region’s population has plunged from 20% a century ago to less than 5% today and falling. In Egypt, 200,000 Coptic Christians fled their homes last year after beatings and massacres by Muslim extremist mobs. Since 2003, 70 Iraqi churches have been burned and nearly a thousand Christians killed in Baghdad alone, causing more than half of this million-member community to flee. Conversion to Christianity is a capital offense in Iran, where last month Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani was sentenced to death. Saudi Arabia outlaws private Christian prayer.
As 800,000 Jews were once expelled from Arab countries, so are Christians being forced from lands they’ve inhabited for centuries.
The only place in the Middle East where Christians aren’t endangered but flourishing is Israel. Since Israel’s founding in 1948, its Christian communities (including Russian and Greek Orthodox, Catholics, Armenians and Protestants) have expanded more than 1,000%.
Christians are prominent in all aspects of Israeli life, serving in the Knesset, the Foreign Ministry and on the Supreme Court. They are exempt from military service, but thousands have volunteered and been sworn in on special New Testaments printed in Hebrew. Israeli Arab Christians are on average more affluent than Israeli Jews and better-educated, even scoring higher on their SATs…
This does not mean that Israeli Christians do not occasionally encounter intolerance. But in contrast to elsewhere in the Middle East where hatred of Christians is ignored or encouraged, Israel remains committed to its Declaration of Independence pledge to “ensure the complete equality of all its citizens irrespective of religion.” It guarantees free access to all Christian holy places, which are under the exclusive aegis of Christian clergy. When Muslims tried to erect a mosque near the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, the Israeli government interceded to preserve the sanctity of the shrine…
The extinction of the Middle East’s Christian communities is an injustice of historic magnitude. Yet Israel provides an example of how this trend can not only be prevented but reversed. With the respect and appreciation that they receive in the Jewish state, the Christians of Muslim countries could not only survive but thrive.”