As is often the case, religious events in the holy land are tinted by a harsh political reality and an occupation which pits religious and national factions against one another.
Good Friday – which this year Orthodox, Catholics and Protestants celebrated on 14 April – marked the day when Christians believe Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem before he was resurrected from his grave two days later. On the other opposite side of the Israeli Separation Wall is the Palestinian city of Bethlehem, home to the Church of Nativity, where Christians believe Jesus was born. As such, the occupied Palestinian territory is dear to Christians throughout the world, not least to those Palestinian Christians who continue to live in the West Bank and Gaza.
Around 2% of the Palestinian population is Christian, down from around 18% prior to the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. Right-wing commentators and hardened supporters of Israel claim this is a result of the Islamisation of cities such as Bethlehem and Ramallah, both of which previously had a Christian majority. However, Palestinian Christians and Muslims have long been united in their quest for justice and freedom. The Israeli occupation, restrictions on movement and few jobs prospects have seen large numbers of Palestinian Christians leave their homeland in the search of a better future.
While Easter is an important religious holiday for Palestinian Christians, this year it also coincided with the Jewish holiday of Passover, resulting in increased Israeli-imposed restrictions for Palestinians throughout the occupied territories. With the exception of humanitarian and NGO workers, the Israeli authorities banned entry to all Palestinian West Bank ID holders into Israel, or to be more precise, beyond the boundaries of the Separation Wall. This includes Palestinian East Jerusalem which Israel has occupied since 1967. The entry ban was partially lifted to allow Palestinian Christians into Jerusalem over the Easter weekend, albeit via overcrowded military checkpoints such as the one in Qalandia close to Ramallah. In Hebron, in the occupied West Bank, Palestinians were banned from entering the Ibrahimi Mosque – which Jews and Muslims alike believe is the burial place of Abraham – and Israeli settlers were granted the freedom to enter as they please sacred areas usually reserved for Palestinian Muslims.
Israel defended the far-reaching restrictions as necessary security measure due to heightened tensions. Jewish extremists have often used Passover to disturb the peace at the Al-Aqsa compound and indeed this year was even worse than usual. According to Ma’an, right-wing religious nationalists entered the compound to pray despite a status quo that restricts Jewish prayer on the esplanade that hosts the third holiest Mosque in Islam. Equally Muslims do not pray at the Western Wall, the most important religious site in Judaism. According to Haaretz, in comparison to 2016, more than double the number of Jews (360) visited the Al-Aqsa compound on the first day of Passover this year.
While religious festivals ought to be a time of peace and understanding, the reality in the holy land is unfortunately somewhat different. While Passover is a period of joy for Israel’s Jewish population, it is a reminder to Palestinians of how easily Israel can dictate the movement of tens of thousands of innocent civilians. Furthermore, Easter highlighted the plight of Palestine’s Christian minority, whose connection to the land does little to distinguish them from their Palestinian brethren in the face of a degrading and dehumanizing occupation.