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BETHLEHEM-GAZANS May-13-2009 (380 words) With photos. xxxi

Fewer than 100 Gazans receive Israeli permits to travel to papal Mass

By Judith Sudilovsky
Catholic News Service

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (CNS) -- Israel issued fewer than half the travel permits the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem had requested for Christians from the Gaza Strip to attend Pope Benedict XVI's Mass May 13 in Bethlehem.

"We gave 250 (names). We should have at least gotten 200. There was no explanation for anything," said Father Humam Khzouz, chancellor of the Latin patriarchate.

Wadie Abunasser, spokesman for the local church committee organizing the visit, said only 95 permits were issued for Gaza residents.

One of the Gazans present at the papal Mass, Bishara Khoury, said the small number of travel permits did not surprise him.

Waiting for permits and not receiving them has become the routine, said the 46-year-old information specialist.

"It is normal. At Easter none of us could leave," said Khoury, who is Greek Orthodox, as he stood near a tree trying to grab some shade during the Mass in Manger Square.

Khoury said his group left Gaza midday May 12 and waited four hours at the Israeli-manned Erez checkpoint before being able to cross.

The long wait, he said, also was part of "the normal schedule."

Khoury said no one under the age of 35 was issued a permit and only one person per family was allowed to travel.

Father Jorge Hernandez, pastor of Holy Family Church in Gaza City, said, "Although it is an injustice we are grateful that at least one group will be able to see the pope, which is what we wanted."

The priest and about 20 members of the delegation from Gaza were able to shake hands with Pope Benedict after the Mass, and a group of Gazans invited by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was to meet the pope later in the day.

Almost half of the permits approved were issued to members of the Greek Orthodox Church, Khoury said.

Even though he is not Catholic, Khoury said the pope's words helped bolster his spirits about his life in Gaza.

"What he said was no one should lose hope, and as a Christian I believe in his words," said Khoury.

"If there is anything we can have at this moment, it is hope for peace now and in the future. The situation in Gaza is very, very bad," he said.


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