May 12, 2009 / 9:06 AM / 10 years ago

Israel limits Gaza Christians hoping to see Pope

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.

Palestinian official Hatem Abdel-Qader said the closure of the press office “shows the situation in Jerusalem is abnormal.” He said he hoped the pope, who has called for a Palestinian state to be established alongside Israel, would intervene.

The selection of Gaza Christians was done on the basis of age. Only Palestinians older than 35 were permitted entry to Israel for the visit, Israeli and Palestinian officials said.

“I wanted to take the children to visit Bethlehem and Jerusalem so they can have some joy and attend the prayers,” said Samia Tarazi, one of those denied a permit.

“I wanted also to see the Pope and spend the whole day praying.”

Some 3,000 Christians live among 1.5 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, the majority of whom are Muslim.

Additional reporting by Ivan Karakashian in Jerusalem and Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza

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