Easter Mass in Iqrit – returning in death and returning in life
As with all major religious festivals, Easter in celebrated enthusiastically in Palestine. For Palestinian Christians Easter is one of the main annual celebrations, whilst in cities such as Ramallah, Bethlehem and Jerusalem where street marches take place large numbers of Palestinian Muslims also take to the streets to share in the festivities. Ramadan and Eid and similarly enjoyed by the Christian community in a celebratory manner.
In today’s Palestine, celebrating Easter presents many challenges which differ from area to area. For Palestinians living in 1967 occupied lands, Israeli-issued permits must be acquired to pass checkpoints and walls and attend celebrations in Jerusalem. Israel claims to have issued 20,000 permits this year to Christians who live in 1967 occupied lands. Although this reported figure amounts to 40% of the Christians living in these areas, several churches have reported being successful with no more than 20% of the applications they made for their parishioners. Even amongst those who did reach Jerusalem, the vast majority were prevented from entering the Holy Sepulcher church where Israel had employed myriad checkpoints and other obstacles. As widely reported in the media, UN envoy Robert Serry was amongst those people refused passage through the checkpoints and into the church.
For displaced Palestinians, which is the vast majority of all Palestinians alive today, celebrating Easter in their home villages is also impossible in the main with most unable to even visit their villages. For two villages in the Galilee however, Easter is one of the few times when the internally displaced community is actually allowed to gather in their home village, despite not being permitted to live there. The villages of Iqrit and Kufr Bir’im were both forcibly depopulated in 1948 by Zionist militias with a promise of return after two weeks. This promise was never fulfilled and in 1951, despite a decision by the Israeli Supreme Court granting the villagers’ their return, the villages were systematically blown-up by Israeli forces. Only the churches was left intact whilst empty houses and schools were entirely demolished under heavy military bombardment. Since the 1970’s these communities have resumed religious ceremonies in their churches whilst still living in enforced exile. The villages’ cemeteries are still used to bury the dead, although the living cannot remain in the villages.
The ‘internally displaced’ Palestinian communities of Iqrit and Kufr Bir’im have struggled in various ways for many years to achieve their return but to no avail. In 2012, a group of youth from Iqrit took matters into their own hands by starting an ongoing action to live inside the village church. Their attempts to construct anything in the village have been met with immediate demolition by the Israeli authorities. In August 2013, Kufr Bir’im followed suit by remaining in their village following their annual summer camp and continue today to live in tents in Bir’im although they are doing so under a recently re-issued evacuation and demolition order. The two villages have now prepared a joint letter to be submitted to Pope Francis on his upcoming trip to the Middle East appealing for his support in their struggle, its sentiments are clear:
‘We have been carrying the cross of exile along with millions of Palestinian refugees, including 400,000 internally displaced Palestinians within the State of Israel…
The State of Israel treats us as second-class citizens because we are not Jews. That is the main reason our return has been denied, whilst our lands are being used by Jewish settlements…
We do not want to return to our villages only in coffins, but when we are alive…’