Israel has banned the Christian minority who live in the Gaza Strip ruled by Hamas from visiting Christian holy sites and churches in the West Bank and Jerusalem to celebrate Christmas, a spokesman for the Christian community said on Sunday.
Israeli media reported on Saturday that Israel bans 500 Christians in the Gaza Strip from travelling to the West Bank for Christmas and New Year holidays.
Meanwhile, the Israeli daily said the Israeli security only agreed to allow 100 Christians from the Gaza Strip to travel to Jordan only for Christmas.
The Israeli ban has left more disappointment, anger, and frustration among the Christians in Gaza, Kamel Ayyad told reporters.
Last year, "Israel gave permission to about 500 Christians to travel to the West Bank to celebrate Christmas there," he said, reported Xinhua news agency.
Around 5,000 Christians, most of whom are Greek Orthodox, lived in the Gaza Strip before Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization signed Oslo peace accords in 1994. However, their number dramatically declined because of the continuing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
Since Hamas violently seized control of the Gaza Strip in 2007, the number of Christians in the coastal enclave has dropped to around 900 amid threats from radical Sunni groups. Those who left Gaza moved to either the West Bank or Europe, the United States, Canada, and Australia.
"The decision to ban Christians from leaving Gaza is unfair, unjust, causing disappointment among the Christians and also outraging the only two Orthodox and Catholic churches in Gaza," said Ayyad.
"Israel is carrying out such measures to force the Christians to leave their homeland Palestine and live abroad, in order to strengthen its occupation of the Palestinian territories," he noted.
Christians in the Gaza Strip, home to 2 million Palestinians, used to travel every year to the West Bank city of Bethlehem and Jerusalem to join Palestinian Christians there to celebrate Christmas and the New Year.
Israel occupied the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip in June 1967 before pulling out from Gaza in 2005. Israel imposed a tight blockade on Gaza right after Hamas routed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' security forces and took control of the enclave in 2007.
Hana Eassa, secretary general of the Palestinian Christian Islamic Corporation, also condemned Israel's decision to ban Gaza's Christians from reaching the West Bank.
"The Israeli decision represents a serious violation and breach of the freedom of movement and worship stated in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights," said Eassa.
Bishop Atallah Hanna, Archbishop of Sebastia of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Palestine, said the Israeli measure against the Christians of Gaza is totally rejected and condemned.
"On more than one occasion, we have expressed our reservations over the issue of providing permits by Israel to Christians and also to Muslims on their holidays so that they can reach the holy places all over Palestine," said Hanna.
"The holy city of Jerusalem must be opened for everyone," he noted.
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