During the Easter season, Maria usually pens a letter to people living outside the Holy Land, describing the joyous Holy Saturday festivities in Jerusalem, where Christian Palestinians and pilgrims from around the world have gathered for centuries to celebrate Christ’s Resurrection. Her words overflow with awe and absolute love of God and His most Precious Gift to mankind.
As the years pass, however, Maria’s Easter letters are becoming more and more deeply shadowed by expressions of frustration and anger over the illegal and brutal Israeli occupation that humiliates Palestinians and prevents them from moving around freely in their own country.
“For nine years,” Maria’s 2009 letter cried, “there has been no change in the Holy Land and conditions continue to get worse than the day before... There has only been violence and darkness while the world watches and does nothing to help end the occupation... “
The injustice of the Israeli occupation is magnified a hundred-fold for Christian Palestinians during their most important religious celebrations. If they live anywhere in Palestine outside Jerusalem and want to celebrate a holy day like Christmas or Easter, they must get a permit from the Israeli government to enter the (chiefly Arab) Old City. Permit applications are complicated, take months to process and are routinely denied with no explanation. If they get a permit, they still may not get into Jerusalem, due to scores of checkpoints along the way, where Israeli soldiers have the power to randomly disallow entry.
“People are trying to live normal lives and celebrate centuries’ old traditions while locked up within a wall and open prison,” Maria said in her 2009 letter. “Israeli Occupation Forces brutally killed a 30-year-old man who was participating in a non-violent demonstration...and Israeli settlers viciously killed a young boy from Jalazon Refugee camp the same day.
“It is a struggle to stay peaceful while you are being stripped of your dignity and humanity on a daily basis,” she said.
Maria did not write her usual Easter letter this year. Instead, she forwarded a press release from Michael Nseir, Programme Executive of the Palestine Israel Ecumenical Forum (PIEF). The PIEF is a platform that rallies churches together to coordinate efforts and initiatives for a just peace in Palestine-Israel through non-violence and rigorous dialogue. Nseir echoed everything Maria has said.
“Palm Sunday, Good Friday, Holy Fire Saturday, and Easter Sunday are the holiest days celebrated in Jerusalem for Christians...and they are being denied the fundamental right to freely exercise their religion because of road blocks in the old city, police presence with machine guns, and rude, hostile attitudes from police and Army officers. (Israeli-imposed) curfews and forced closures make movement almost impossible.
“In sharp contrast, Israel allows Jews to freely access their temples,” he said.
Palestinians have now initiated a public debate about freedom of worship in Jerusalem and Israel’s unjust treatment of Christians as well as Muslims, whose Al Aqsa Mosque has suffered constant settler aggressions against it. Israel’s discriminatory and restrictive policies are being challenged, and religious organizations in occupied East Jerusalem have embarked upon a legal process to preserve the Palestinian right of free access to their churches and shrines.
Palestinian Christians are also calling upon the international community, and particularly the greater Christian World, to put pressure on Israel to end its illegal occupation of East Jerusalem and stop limiting Holy Land Christians and others from exercising their basic religious rights.
We are part of that international community and ‘Christian World’ to whom these oppressed Palestinians - people like Maria - are appealing. Just as our country has committed itself to the rights of Jews in the Holy Land, so should we commit ourselves to the rights of Christians and all who live there and want peace. Jesus would not have had it any other way.