Israel restricts entry of Gaza Christians for Easter Jerusalem celebrations
Israeli authorities said on Thursday that they have decided to block most of Gaza's small Christian community from entering Israel for Easter celebrations, citing security concerns.
Israel maintains a blockade over the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip and restricts entry from the territory.
But it has in the past eased restrictions during religious holidays to allow Gaza's residents to visit holy sites in Jerusalem or to visit relatives in Israel or the West Bank.
COGAT, the defence body that oversees Palestinian civilian affairs, said it will let only Christians aged 55 and older and children under age 16 enter Israel for Easter, which is celebrated by Catholics on Sunday and Orthodox Christians the following week.
It said the restrictions were needed after previous cases in which Gazan visitors overstayed their permitted time in Israel.
A Christian leader in Gaza said the restrictions mean that only about one-third of the community's 1,100 members will be allowed into Israel to celebrate.
He said he was disappointed because his children would not be able to see their aunts in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
He spoke on condition of anonymity because he did not want to jeopardise his own entry permit.
Wadie Abunassar, a Catholic Church official, called the restrictions "very sad" because Easter is a family holiday.
Abunassar said it was "not reasonable" to allow a mother and father to enter Israel, while "leaving their children back in Gaza," and urged Israel to reconsider.
"If people want to leave, they don't want to leave for a honeymoon," he said. "It is for a family trip."
Israel has maintained a decade-long blockade of Gaza.
The UN has previously characterised the blockade as "collective punishment" and has said it violates international law.
Of Gaza's 2 million Palestinian residents, about 1,000 are Christian. The vast majority belong to the Greek Orthodox branch of Christianity.
Last year, Israel allowed more than 550 Christians out of Gaza to visit Jerusalem for Easter.
Easter this year falls on the same weekend as Passover and church leaders fear that it will mean even more restrictions for Palestinians who want to travel.
Israel typically ramps up its security operations around the Jewish holiday.