Christian leaders representing a wide spectrum of sects were assured Monday morning by the commander of the IDF's Civil Administration Bethlehem Coordination and Liaison Office that Christian pilgrims would have free access to the birthplace of Jesus during the Christmas holiday.
Priests, archbishops and friars representing Latin Catholic, Coptic, Greek Orthodox, Franciscan, Lutheran, Anglican, Syrian Orthodox, Ethiopian and Armenian Christian sects met with Lt.-Col. Eyad Sirhan, the Druse commander responsible for orchestrating pilgrimages by a diverse collection of Christian faithful.
Some wore the black and white collar of the priest, others wore robes and traditional hats. Conversation was conducted in Arabic, since all of leaders serve indigenous congregations, some of which date back to the Byzantine era, located in Jordan, Gaza, Judea and Samaria and even Syria, as well as Israel.
The various sects celebrate Christmas on different dates, complicating the arrangements in and out of Bethlehem. While Western Christians celebrate the birth of their savior on December 25, the orthodox sects celebrate on January 7 in accordance with the Julian calendar.
But Sirhan said that the IDF would do everything in its power to make sure that there is freedom of movement for over 65,000 Christians expected to visit on Christmas Eve.
"The IDF is responsible for security for the processions from Jerusalem until they reach Bethlehem, which is located in Area A. From that point on the Palestinian Authority will be responsible for security. We are not coordinating with Hamas," Sirhan said.
Sirhan said he had briefed his soldiers to impress upon them the importance of treating Christian leaders and laypeople with respect at the border crossings and checkpoint.
And he assured religious leaders that entry permits valid for one month would be provided to anyone who requested one, as long as they had no record of security infractions and possessed a biometric ID card.
In response to reporters' questions, Sirhan said that there were no security warnings that Jewish settlers might attempt to attack Christians during the Christmas season.
"We are expecting more visitors this year than last thanks to the improved security situation," he said.
Rev. Dr. Munir Kakish, chairman of the Council of Local Evangelical Churches in the Holy Land, said that he was concerned that Christians living in Gaza would be unable to get out or to receive visitors.
"I would like to call to help Christians in Gaza to see their relatives," he said.
Kakish, who said that there were about 200 Evangelical Christians living in Gaza, related experiences in which he was unable to enter the Gaza Strip to visit.
"Every time I visit Gaza I must apply for a brand new permit. There is no such thing as a multi-visit entry permit. I have to wait three to four weeks. And last month I was denied entry," he said.
Kakish rejected claims that the Christian communities of Gaza were being persecuted under Hamas rule.
"There is security in Gaza and there is order. Hamas is getting along well with the Christians. I recently was allowed to give a sermon in Gaza City."
Dr. Bishop Naim Khoury of the Holy Land Baptist Mission Middle East said that if enough permits were given to pilgrims it would help stabilize the situation.
"If people are given more freedom to move around, not just during Christmas but also during the entire year, that would be a step in the right direction," he said. "When families living in Israel are able to visit relatives in the West Bank it is very encouraging."
Secretary of Jerusalem's Greek Orthodox Church Patriarchate Aristarchus said that his church was expecting thousands of pilgrims.
"There is a special joy this time of year. Tourism helps the business and it lowers the tension. We pray to God to give peace to the Israeli society. We hope there will not be problems. The peace will bring to the Jewish people better living conditions."
Aristarchus rejected claims that the situation of Christians in Bethlehem was difficult. "We live in peace in Bethlehem," he said.