Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity has restored its sparkling mosaics and marble columns to their original glory for the first time in 600 years.
“It has become such a beautiful church,” Ziad al-Bandak, head of the local project committee of Christian leaders, told the AP. “Every Christian in the world would love to see it now.”
Palestinian Mayor Anton Salman expects 1.2 million tourists will make their way to Christ’s birthplace this year. Among them, following an Israeli reversal, will be those who most long to visit for Christmas—the Christians of the Gaza Strip.
“In Gaza, they talk about the West Bank as if it is heaven,” said Hanna Maher, Egyptian pastor of the Gaza Baptist Church. “People love to go for Christmas; there are so many churches.”
In Gaza, there are three. According to the 2017 census, 47,000 Christians live in the Palestinian territories (1% of the population), but only about 1,000 live in Gaza.
Last week the Christian advocacy group Middle East Concern (MEC) reported that nearly all who applied to enter Israel to visit the West Bank for Christmas failed to receive permits, except for those older than 55.
Applicants younger than 16 were also approved, consistent with restrictions instituted last Christmas and maintained through Easter. A previous policy limited travel to those between ages 16 and 35.
The MEC report was confirmed by Maher, who stated that initially just 200 travel permits had been granted, and Christians, sharing stories of the delayed permit applications, began to assume those outside the age limit would not be allowed to travel.
But their prayers were answered this week when hundreds more approvals were granted, The new batch brings the total for Gaza’s Christians up to 650, reported TV7, with an additional 100 applicants in process. Maher confirmed this latest list included many youth. Another round of approvals is expected to release on Christmas Eve.
“The ones who get permission are happy,” he said. “The others not.”
In previous years, when Christians were able to travel to the West Bank without restrictions, the churches in Gaza would be empty for Christmas, said Hanna Massad, founder of Christian Mission to Gaza. He served as pastor of the Gaza Baptist Church from 1987–91 and 1999–2008 and returns regularly.
This year, among Gaza’s sole evangelical congregation of 60 people, one young man’s travel application went unanswered, while his parents received permission.
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SOURCE: Christianity Today, Jayson Casper