Holy Land: Israel refuses Papal Nuncio entry to Gaza

 Israel denied the Papal Nuncio Archbishop Antonio Franco, access to Gaza on Sunday where he was due to celebrate Mass for local Catholics, according to a report sent by Caritas.

The archbishop, who is also the apostolic delegate in Jerusalem and Palestine, has been in Palestine for almost three years. The incident is the first of its kind.

Fr Humam Khzouz, a Jordanian priest based in Palestine, who was accompanying the archbishop on his trip, told the Jordan Times: "The trip is not of a diplomatic kind. It was largely a spiritual mission to celebrate a Mass with the locals who were looking forward to spending holy time with the archbishop."

The parish was without a priest on Sunday, as the parish priest, Monsignor Manuel Mussallam had been given permission to visit his family in Birzeit after spending eight years in Gaza'

Because the Archbishop was not allowed to visit, the 300 worshippers at the 'Holy Family" church went without a Sunday Mass.

"This is a disrespect to all diplomatic ties between Israel and the Vatican, as well as a violation against the rights of the Christians in Gaza, who have the right to hold their rituals freely," Amman based Roman Catholic priest Rifat Bader said.

Fr Khzouz said: "I, along with the three priests, have service passports which allow us to travel without previous arrangements with the Israeli authority."

The archbishop has an official diplomatic passport accredited from the Israeli foreign ministry. Contacts had also taken place with Israeli officials from the foreign ministry three days prior to the papal nuncio's visit to Gaza.

Fr Khzouz said: "The Israeli authorities knew of our visit since Tuesday. Still, they [the Israeli authorities] left us waiting at the Erez crossing for almost three hours," while the Israelis allowed other delegations "to enter and leave Gaza on the same day".

"We were standing there [at the Erez Crossing] barred from entering Gaza while the UN, Red Cross and other officials were permitted in and out of the strip," Father Khzouz said.

"It could be sensed that this behaviour on the part of Israel is meant as a negative message to the Vatican," Fr Bader said.

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