As a consequence of the obstruction of freedom of movement caused by Israeli military occupation, access to worship has been compromised for many years, and with the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, the situation is even more uncertain.
Fr Koryoun (Hovnan) Baghdasaryan of the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem explains that the important Easter ceremonies at the Holy Sepulchre Church - the holy site where Jesus Christ was crucified and resurrected - were severely restricted last year, but not for the usual reasons of Palestinian travel restrictions. ”The coronavirus lockdowns made things more difficult last year. We didn’t have the opportunity to celebrate as normal. The number of participants was limited to just ten, from all communities. We still don’t know what will happen this year,” said Baghdasaryan.
“With regard to the Easter celebrations, the central holy site for celebrations is the Holy Sepulchre Church,” Fr Baghdasaryan observes. “The Holy Sepulchre Church is the main holy site, it is where the crucifixion and the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ took place, and that’s why the major celebrations are held there.”
“The most important ceremony for Christians is the Holy Fire ceremony which is a day before Easter on Holy Saturday when the Holy Fire pours from the Christ’s tomb. The fire that symbolizes the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, is then shared and it reaches many countries in the world. That is how we announce to the world the resurrection of our Lord,” Fr Baghdasaryan continues.
Hania Kassicieh-Persekian, a member of the Greek Orthodox Church, often bears the brunt of injustice—both as a Palestinian and a Christian—and as Easter approaches, this injustice has taken the form of denied access to the Holy Sepulchre Church in Jerusalem, where Jesus was crucified and resurrected.
“I am not treated equally to the Israelis,” says Kassicieh-Persekian, part of the World Council of Churches (WCC) EAPPI international reference group, in describing how access is unfairly restricted for Palestinians.
“The WCC has responded to a call from local churches in Palestine to come and witness what is happening here to Palestinians in general and to Christian Palestinians,” said Kassicieh-Persekian. “I believe that it is very important for WCC to spread the word about what is happening in Palestine.”
It’s common for Christians in Palestine to become so depressed that they simply want to leave, added Kassicieh-Persekian. “But if everyone leaves, the churches will remain as stones—but without the living stones of the church.”
Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, Israelis and Palestinians are treated differently, agreed Mrs Kassicieh-Persekian. "I believe they are using the pandemic to prevent people to go and pray in the Holy Sepulchre church,” she said. “For example, this year now, it is still not clear what the celebration for Easter will be.”
The Kassicieh-Persekians remain unsure if there will be a Holy Fire or masses—and who will be allowed to attend. “I have been checking with the churches,” said Mrs Kassicieh-Persekian. “They are taking advantage of the pandemic; if you look outside in the street, it is full of people walking around at the Jaffa Gate.”
The Kassicieh-Persekians also heard that flights are open for Israelis to come in for the elections. “But at the same time we can’t go to church,” said Mrs Kassicieh-Persekian. While many Palestinians request permits, they are often refused, and the authorities are not required to give a reason—or they may give a permit to only part of a family or church group.
This year, with the COVID-19 pandemic, the ability to celebrate important religious events is heavily restricted.
While justified concerns remain over freedom of movement and freedom to worship for Palestinian Christians, Fr Baghdasaryan concludes that “with limitations or without limitations, the important thing is the spiritual experience of each of the faithful, to live the spiritual experience of the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ—this is the most important feast for each Christian”.
This feature is one in a series of stories for an Easter Initiative by the World Council of Churches Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (WCC-EAPPI). People living under occupation have shared their daily life experiences of injustice as well as their hopes for the future.