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Jerusalem church leaders decry Israel's 'heavy-handed' Easter restrictions

Israeli police say the number of worshippers will be slashed by 80 percent, as church leaders insist they won't comply
The Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III arrives at the Nativity Church in Bethlehem on 6 January 2023 (AFP)

Jerusalem's church leaders condemned on Wednesday Israel's "heavy-handed" decision to restrict the number of people allowed to visit the Holy Sepulchre Church in occupied East Jerusalem for Easter celebrations this weekend.

Israeli police said the new restrictions would slash the number of worshippers by 80 percent in order to maintain safety. 

However, church leaders branded the decision an affront to the rights and freedoms of the local Christian community, vowing not to comply with it. 

"We shall continue to uphold the status quo customs, and the ceremony will be held as customary for two millennia and all who wish to worship with us are invited to attend," the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, the Custody of the Holy Land, and the Armenian Patriarchate said in a joint statement.

The new restrictions mean that only 1,800 people will be allowed inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, with another 1,200 outside, instead of the 10,000 worshippers that typically come during Easter.

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The annual holy fire ceremony, the most important Easter celebration for the Eastern Orthodox Church, is set to take place in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Saturday.

Israel's restrictions on worshippers coming to the Holy Sepulchre comes after Israel cancelled hundreds of permits for Palestinian Christians in Gaza hoping to visit Jerusalem for Easter, Saint Porphyrios Orthodox Church said.

More than 700 permits were reportedly granted for the Easter holiday before the cancellation.

The Islamic-Christian Commission in support of Jerusalem condemned the sudden cancellation of permits for Palestinian Christians from Gaza and dubbed it as an affront to their freedom to worship. 

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"The Commission added that the occupation’s continued restriction of freedom of worship for Christian and Muslim citizens and its continued targeting of Islamic and Christian holy places constitutes a serious violation of the rules of international humanitarian law," the commission noted. 

The Israeli curbs come as attacks on Christian sites in Israel and the occupied territories have become increasingly common in recent years.

In January, Israeli youths vandalised a Christian cemetery in East Jerusalem over the New Year holidays, smashing crosses and knocking down headstones on more than 30 graves.

Two Israelis entered the Church of Gethsemane a month later and physically attacked a bishop and two priests during a religious service.

In December 2021, patriarchs and heads of churches in Jerusalem warned that "Christians have become the target of frequent and sustained attacks by fringe radical groups", referring to Israeli far-right activists.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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