5 min read

My religion or yours? Worship in the Holy Land

June 6, 2019

It makes me sad that my children… think it’s normal to pass through a checkpoint controlled by soldiers to reach our important holy places.’

Jamal*, a Palestinian Christian

Jerusalem is home to many sacred holy sites from more than one religious tradition. The Al-Aqsa Mosque is the third most sacred site in Islam, the Western Wall, the most sacred site in Judaism, and The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the most sacred site in Christianity. All three are located close together in the centre of the Old City in Jerusalem. It is a special place for all three religions and attracts pilgrims and regular worshipers from around the world. Jerusalem is a short bus ride from Bethlehem, about 8km, which should make it easy to visit both these places in one day, but this is not the case.

If you are a Palestinian living in Bethlehem or the surrounding area, to get to Jerusalem you have to cross the Separation Barrier by going through Checkpoint 300. This is one of a number of Israeli military guarded checkpoints that restrict the movement of Palestinians in the West Bank. The Israeli military controls the passage of Palestinians in a number of ways, including by preventing access to East Jerusalem during Jewish festivals.

For Jews, 19-27 April 2019 was Pesach (Passover) and this year it coincided with Easter for Western and Eastern Orthodox Christians. During this period there were also two Fridays, the main day of worship for Muslims.  A ‘total closure’ of Checkpoint 300 was in place during Passover. This prevented tens of thousands of Palestinian Muslims and Christians from entering Jerusalem for both work and worship.

It is cited that the checkpoint closures are to enable Israeli military officials to celebrate Passover and are also a security measure to prevent Palestinian violence during the festival. Rashid*, a Palestinian Muslim who normally works in Jerusalem, but is unable to go to work or to pray during the Passover closure feels differently:

‘It makes no sense, how can it be about security when last week they let me in and after Passover they will let me in. They can just do what they want, give you a permit or not give you a permit, let you in or not let you in. It’s not about security, it’s about showing you they have control. They say there will be trouble if Palestinians are in Jerusalem when it’s the Jewish holidays and yet every Friday we are here and there is no trouble, every day we work here and there is no trouble.’

Some Palestinians living in the West Bank can apply for a holiday permit during the Easter period, if they meet the criteria set by COGAT (Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories), an Israeli government department. However, entry requirements are strict and there are no guarantees their application will be successful.

George*, A Palestinian Christian from Bethlehem shrugged his shoulders and said:

‘Sometimes I get a holiday permit and sometimes I don’t. I don’t know why, you never know why. They come through the church and only some people get them. It’s about keeping Palestinians away from Jerusalem but there’s no reason. Here in Bethlehem, we all mix together and worship at the mosque or the church. Every Friday in Jerusalem Muslims, Christians and Jews are all together in the Old City, so why not this week?’

Jamal*, a Palestinian Christian, showed me his holiday permit (he told me he was too scared of consequences to let me photograph it). He spoke sadly:

‘I got a permit this year. We all want to worship at our holy place but the Israeli government gets to choose who can go and when they can go. I remember before the wall when we could travel easily to Jerusalem. It makes me sad that my children have never known that and they think it’s normal to pass through a checkpoint controlled by soldiers to reach our important holy places.’

UN Resolution 476 states the unique spiritual and religious dimension of the holy places in Jerusalem must be preserved and protected.

*Names changed for anonymity

What does international law say?

'Everyone lawfully within the territory of a State shall, within that territory, have the right to liberty of movement...’

Article 12, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 1966

'Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.'

Article 18, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 1966

by EA Sue    –    June 6, 2019

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