Israel limits Gaza Christians hoping to see Pope

Tue May 12, 2009 5:00am EDT
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JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel shut a Palestinian media center in Jerusalem and limited entry to Christians from the Gaza Strip on Monday as Pope Benedict, on a historic visit to the Holy Land, urged open access to the city.

Shortly before the pontiff's arrival, Israel handed a written order to a hotel in East Jerusalem barring the opening of a media center for the 5-day papal visit sponsored by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's government.

In Gaza, Christian clerics and Palestinian officials said some 150 of 250 Christians who applied to leave the Hamas-ruled coastal territory to attend a papal mass in Jerusalem or Bethlehem had been denied permits to do so.

Israel confirmed that about 100 had been permitted entry from Gaza. Israeli officials have said they do all they can to ensure free access to holy sites, but have imposed some restrictions because of security concerns.

On his arrival at Ben-Gurion Airport, Pope Benedict said Christianity, Islam and Judaism all held Jerusalem sacred.

"One thing that the three great monotheistic religions have in common is a special veneration for that holy city," he said.

"It is my earnest hope that all pilgrims to the holy places will be able to access them freely and without restraint."

The order blocking the launch of the Palestinian media center was signed by Israel's minister for internal security and cited an interim peace deal from the 1990s, which Israel says left it in charge of Arab East Jerusalem.

Israel has controlled all of Jerusalem since the Middle East war of 1967 and claims the city as its undivided capital. Its annexation of Arab East Jerusalem, including the Old City with its many holy places, is not recognized internationally.   Continued...