The Israeli Embassy has confirmed this afternoon with Sojourners that travel restrictions preventing Palestinian Christians from entering Jerusalem for Holy Week and Easter have been lifted.
[UPDATE since this story was first posted at 5pm 3/31/2010 : According to representatives from Holy Land Trust, two staff members of which are still in prison after a nonviolent demonstration against such restrictions: By "lifting" travel restrictions from the West Bank to Jerusalem, Israeli officials are merely referring to ending a total curfew imposed a few days ago on access even to people previously granted selective permission to get into Jerusalem. This does not mean that all Palestinian Christians are now allowed entry into Jerusalem to freely celebrate Easter. This only means that Christians who applied for a permission (not all did or could) and who got one (not all did or could) can now take advantage of the permission (if they got it) that "allows" them to enter from one occupied territory into another through the long and humiliating process of going through the checkpoints. Even then, restrictions have already been put in place on access to the Old City for the Holy Fire service on Holy Saturday, which is the most important ceremony for the Greek Orthodox and the Eastern rite communities. Israeli army radio reported 10,000 permits were granted this year; not even a quarter of the Christians in the West Bank. ]
This afternoon, Rev. Michael Kinnamon, the General Secretary of the National Council of Churches, received a telephone call from Dr. Michael Oren, Israel's Ambassador to the United States, stating that travel restrictions that prevented Palestinian Christians from visiting Christian sacred sites in Jerusalem were at least temporarily lifted.
"I received a call from (Oren) indicating he had been in touch with Israeli officials," said Kinnamon in a press release, "and that they have now assured him that travel restrictions on Palestinian Christians from the West Bank have been lifted for Easter -- and that we should notify him directly if there are reports from check points that these orders are not being followed."
NCC press secretary Philip Jenks told Sojourners that Rev. Kinnamon had sent a letter to the Middle East Council of Churches notifying them of the phone call. The letter stated:
"The National Council of Churches in the USA has been deeply disturbed with reports of travel restrictions on Christians from the West Bank who may try to reach Jerusalem for Easter-related events and services. In that regard we enlisted the help of Jewish leaders in the United States, and they urged the Israeli government to rethink this policy.
On Wednesday morning I received a call from Israeli Ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren, indicating that he had been in touch with Israeli officials and that they have now assured him that travel restrictions on Palestinian Christians from the West Bank have been lifted for Easter -- and that we should notify him directly if there are reports from check points that these new orders are not being followed."
Joshua Silverberg, press secretary for the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C., confirmed that the facts of this announcement were true and consistent with what the Ambassador had conveyed. Sojourners has not yet been able to confirm with Palestinian Christians or the Ecumenical Accompaniment Teams if the checkpoints are open.
Rose Marie Berger, an associate editor at Sojourners, blogs at www.rosemarieberger.com. She's the author of the forthcoming book Who Killed Donte Manning?: The Story of an American Neighborhood (Apprentice House, April 2010).