The Gisha: Legal Center for Freedom of Movement NGO on Tuesday accused the Defense Ministry of discriminating between Christians and Muslims in allowing Gazan access to holy sites in Israel.

In its response, the state said that Christians were allowed to cross over for diplomatic and humanitarian reasons.

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In December, the Tel Aviv-based Gisha filed a petition to the Beersheba District Court, following the Defense Ministry’s refusal to allow seven Muslim women from the Gaza Strip to pray at the Aksa Mosque in honor of the prophet Muhammad’s birthday.

The petition said that the Defense Ministry refuses to allow Muslim women from Gaza to enter east Jerusalem, but allows Christian residents of Gaza to pray at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, thus violating the Muslims’ right to freedom of worship. It noted that no security claims were made against the women.

“The refusal to allow their exit is part of a policy that discriminates between Muslims and Christians, all residents of the Gaza Strip. Under the current policy, prayer at Al-Aksa is permitted for Palestinian Muslims from the West Bank, subject to age restrictions and an individual security check. Furthermore, Christian residents of the Gaza Strip receive permits to travel to pray in Bethlehem and Jerusalem on religious holidays, also subject to age restrictions. Muslims, however, are categorically denied permits to leave Gaza for purposes of prayer at Al-Aksa,” Gisha wrote.

“Israel's refusal to allow these women out of Gaza to pray at their holy sites, while allowing Christians to do so, raises the specter of discrimination based on religious belief. Israel’s control of sites holy to multiple religions imposes an obligation to allow worshipers to access them on an egalitarian basis, subject only to individual security checks,” Gisha’s lawyer Nomi Heger said.

The state wrote to the court that the petition should be dismissed out of hand, because it referred to a date that has already passed and therefore was no longer relevant.

The response did, however, outline the reasons for allowing the Christian devout to cross over to Bethlehem, describing it as an “ad hoc” approval and an exception to the general no-crossing policy.

“Indeed, in the past three years the entrance of Christian residents of Gaza to Nazareth and Bethlehem was approved for the purpose of prayer in the holy sites during the major holidays, subject to specified quotas.

This entrance was enabled in light of the defense minister’s decision to ease restrictions on this population,” the state’s response response.

“The main grounds for this decision were for the most part diplomatic, touching on Israel’s foreign policy, strategic and humanitarian, in light of this population [Christians] being a persecuted group with little possibility of holding religious ceremonies in the Strip, as opposed to the Muslim population, who aside from the available options within the Strip, can exit the Strip for the purpose of prayer in Mecca, through Egypt.”

The state rejected the claim that the decision infringed on the women’s right to freedom of worship, arguing that the freedom was not guaranteed to citizens of enemy entities and that allowing some people to enter did not obligate Israel to allow all to enter.

The first hearing on the petition will be held in Beersheba on Thursday.

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