‘We don’t call it the Holy Land anymore. We call it the Crazy Land.’
Easter. A time of chocolate eggs, spring’s showers and if we’re lucky some sunshine too. The beginning of bank holiday season, family meals, new born lambs in thefields, and children’s egg hunts. And if you’re a Christian, a time to go toChurch not just once a week, but maybe even every day. This year, just like every year, many Christians from around the world flocked to Jerusalem tocelebrate Easter in The Holy City, the place where many believe the events of Easter to have taken place; what a privilege. It’s the tour companies best time of the year, shopkeepers ramp up the ‘special prices’ and walking in the Old City becomes a game of dodging the tour group umbrella, more crowded than Kings Cross Station on a Friday evening.
And for Palestinian Christians, long overlooked in this conflict which the world’s press decided long ago is one between Judaism and Islam, as opposed to a battle for land and resources, this is their chance to experience their religious festival in the land they were born in, and the city of Jerusalem. Or is it?
Bishara Khoury is a Palestinian Christian. He’s a mechanic and is married to tourorganiser Samya. They have two young children. He lives in the Old City ofJerusalem, which has a Muslim, Jewish, Armenian and Christian Quarter. Hishouse (which incidentally has a demolition order on it) is a five minute walk from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the focal point for Christians celebrating Easter in Jerusalem. Yet when he tried toenter this Church on Easter Saturday, he was blocked by Israeli police. A complex system of mini checkpoints, barriers, and blockades, along with a police presence so heavy it might have outnumbered priests, was put in placeacross the Old City and Palestinian Christians were prevented from worshiping freely. ‘Go home’ the soldiers told him with few words of explanation, ‘You won’t be getting in here today.’
Yet ironically, Bishara was one of the ‘lucky’ Palestinians who were already able, by virtue of living here, to access Jerusalem. This year, the Jewish Holiday of Pesach (Passover) coincided with Easter which meant holiday time for thesoldiers, border police, and Jerusalem police who man checkpoints in Jerusalemand the West Bank. Palestinian parts of the West Bank were put under military closure, and checkpoints between West Bank and Jerusalem were closed to all Palestinian non-Jerusalem residents for one week. Israeli settlers living in the West Bank could access Jerusalem and the rest of Israel as normal.
Any Palestinian living in the West Bank with a permit to work or study in Jerusalem was simply not able to access that work or school. If your business or school remained open; tough, you missed those days. Of the approximately 15,000Palestinian Christians living in the West Bank who applied for permits to access their holy sites in Jerusalem to worship, only an estimated 2500 received permits (Heads of Churches in Jerusalem figures). No Jewish people have to, or have ever had to under the Israeli occupation since 1967, apply for permits to visit their holy sites in Jerusalem. ‘We don’t call it the Holy Land anymore,’ said one Palestinian, ‘We call it the Crazy Land.’
As an Ecumenical Accompanier we monitored the limits placed on Palestinian Christians over Easter, observing events at checkpoints and access points to holy sites and the Christian Quarter. Instead of an atmosphere of peacefulness, spirituality and celebration, the large numbers of police, all heavily armed of course, evoked feelings of stress, anxiety and tension. Even when inside Jerusalem, just like thousands of other Palestinian Christians, Bishara and his friends and family were deprived of their right to worship. Article 27 of the 4th Geneva Convention states that ‘civilians are entitled to respect for their person, their honour, their family rights, religious convictions, and traditions.’ Article 46 of the Hague Regulations states ‘access to religious institutions’ as a protected right. Yet both these pieces of International Law were ignored by the Israeli authorities over Easter, one of, if not, the most important time of the year for Christians.
EAPPI is a programme which arose from a request from the Heads of Churches inJ erusalem in 2002. Almost twelve years on, Christians here still need help as they try to go about normal lives, where access to work, education and worship is severely restricted through a complex collection of policies, permits and policing. If you are involved in a church, why not think about linking your congregation with one here in East Jerusalem to show your support, and show that Christians here have not been forgotten? If you’d like more details, please let me know.
For now, Passover and Easter fade away, and things get back to ‘normal’. ‘Normal’ where every day thousands of people must pass through checkpoints to go to work or to hospital, and Palestinian farmers are forced to wait for Israeli soldiersto open gates to let them access their own farmland. Where children must show birth certificates to men armed with machine guns to go to school and where families live with the daily and constant threat that the next person at the door will be the settler or the bulldozer, primed for eviction or demolition.The message of Easter, we are told, is one of hope and forgiveness; two concepts severely lacking here in the ‘Crazy Land’ but two concepts which are absolutely essential if normal is ever to mean normal here in the Holy Land.