Patriarch calls on Israel to 'let my people go'

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Addressing a congregation depleted by the Israeli ban on Palestinians entering Jerusalem, the head of the Catholic Church in the Holy Land yesterday asked Israel to lift the closure on the West Bank and Gaza. Speaking in Jerusalem in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Michel Sabbah, the Latin Patriarch, said: "We say to them today what Moses said to the Pharoah on Passover day: Let my people go."

Christians in Jerusalem say their traditional Easter celebrations have drawn fewer worshippers because Christians from towns like Bethlehem and Ramallah have been unable to get past Israeli checkpoints. Last Sunday the traditional Palm Sunday march by Palestinian boy and girl scouts was broken up by Israeli police before it could enter the Old City.

Carrying a silver staff and preceded by Muslim guards who beat the ground with canes, Patriarch Sabbah entered the church through the doorway of the Holy Sepulchre built by the Crusaders. Commenting on the exclusion of almost all of the 65,000 Christians from the West Bank and Gaza, he said: "Jerusalem is closed to our brothers."

Some Christian Palestinians celebrated Easter in a ceremony in Bethlehem, which was handed over by Israel to Palestinian rule in December. Irene, a Christian Palestinian, said: "Israeli soldiers refused to allow us entry to Jerusalem on Saturday when we usually bring the holy candles and light from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and they did the same today."

The number of Christian Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories has fallen sharply since Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza in 1967. They now make up only 40 per cent of the population of Bethlehem and there is heavy Christian emigration from Ramallah, mostly to the US. The Old City of Jerusalem has its Christian Quarter, but many of its shops are owned by Muslims from Hebron.

Repeated Israeli closures of the West Bank since 1991 have crippled the economy of Palestinian East Jerusalem because much of its business came from nearby Palestinian villages. Overall business is down by 40 per cent according to one estimate. But the closure which began after four suicide bombs in Israel has been tighter than anything seen since the Gulf war. The Israeli human rights group B'Tselem says it caused the death of eight Palestinians denied medical treatment.

"In our message, we condemn the violence which kills the innocent," said Patriarch Sabbah. "We also condemn violence exercised by the government itself, such as the closures of Palestinian territories which cause hunger, the dismay, and disturbance in the weekly life, work, schooling and access to hospitals."

n Nablus, West Bank - Yasser Arafat's security forces arrested a prominent preacher a day after he led a prayer sermon attended by the PLO leader, AP reports. Sheikh Jamal Kayed, 60, was detained on Saturday night in the West Bank town of Nablus, security officials said. Islamic leaders speculated that officials might have objected to the sheikh's quotation of passages from the Koran that could have been interpreted as being critical of Mr Arafat's rule.