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Palestinian Christian couple's divided life

Nadine holds a photo of herself and Sameer
Sameer and Nadine have been together for five years, but kept apart for one

Pope Benedict XVI has said he hopes for an end to Israeli-imposed restrictions on movement that divide Palestinian families and limit access to holy sites.

Many Palestinian Christians have emigrated in recent decades to escape the pressures of conflict and Israeli occupation. The BBC's Aleem Maqbool reports on the problems faced by one young couple who have stayed.

At a Catholic church in the West Bank, 24-year-old accountant Sameer Khoury, is praying that he will soon be reunited with the girl he wants to marry.

Nadine
I need to go to Bethlehem to be with the man I love. God meant us to be together
Nadine, Sameer's fiancee

He lives near Bethlehem. Nadine, who is 22, is trapped in the Gaza Strip.

"We started seeing each other five years ago," says Sameer. "We are engaged, but we haven't met for a year because Israel doesn't let us move around freely."

"It's so hard to be forced to be separated from the one you love. Every time I see a couple together, my heart hurts"

Bethlehem is becoming increasingly suffocated. Israel continues to build its barrier. It says it is to stop potential bombers, but a concrete wall now runs well inside the boundaries of this Palestinian city.

Other restrictions imposed by the army around the West Bank, on the grounds of security, hamper movement.

So while tourists and pilgrims from all over the world visit the holy sites, for Palestinians themselves, it is not always easy to get Israeli permission to go to Bethlehem.

For those living in the Gaza Strip, it is virtually impossible.

Lives on hold

In Gaza, just a couple of hours away by car (if you have a foreign passport and an Israeli Government press card), the feeling of being cut off from the outside world pervades.

PALESTINIAN CHRISTIANS
Palestinian church in Bethlehem
Palestinian territories
50,000-83,000 Christians make up 1.2 - 2.2% of population
2,000 in Gaza (pop 1.5m)
Israel
150,000 Christians make up 2.1% of population (120,000 Arab, others mainly Russian immigrants)
Palestinian Diaspora
Half a million Christians, estimated at 6% of total
Decline in Israel/Palestinian territories:
Difficult to track, but 1940s estimates put Christian pop at 7-9% of population of British mandate Palestine
Reasons for decline: Low birth rates, emigration due to conflict, economic issues and living as "minority within a minority"
Sources: Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics; Bethlehem Univ; World Christian Database

Israel has said it has closed the territory's crossings to weaken Hamas and the militants who have fired rockets across the border.

But the policy means the lives of many Palestinians there - including members of Gaza's 2,000-strong Christian community - have been all but put on hold.

Sameer's fiancee, Nadine, is a lawyer in Gaza City.

She is desperate to join Sameer in Bethlehem. But she has been told she does not meet the Israeli criteria for a case that requires permission to leave Gaza on "humanitarian grounds".

So she has no way of getting to the West Bank, and there are no imminent prospects of that changing.

"I need to go to Bethlehem to be with the man I love," she tells me. "God meant us to be together.

"I'm just waiting to get married, waiting to start a family with Sameer.

"Everything for me is dependent on that Israeli permit to get out of Gaza to go to the West Bank.

"Really, I am waiting to be able to start my life."

Prayers of resistance

Of course, these issues affect all Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, not just the estimated 2% that are Christian.

The leader of the Latin Church in Gaza, Father Emmanuel Musallam, says it is a difficult time to think of spirituality.

Sameer
Sameer says the couple would marry within days if they were able to meet

"We cannot speak with the world as other Christians," he says.

"For now, more than anything, we are involved in the resistance.

"When we pray, we pray for peace. When we hope, we hope for an end to the Israeli occupation. When we meet together, we talk of our suffering as Palestinians, not as Christians."

Father Emmanuel vehemently talked down any suggestions of tensions between Palestinian Christians and Muslims.

"We are suffering together under the occupation and with war and this blockade," he says.

"We all need to go to Jerusalem, we all need to go to the holy places. But also, simply, we all need to see our country."

For Pope Benedict's visit to Bethlehem, church officials say that Israel has issued special permits to about 100 Christians from Gaza to attend, though not all those that received them have been allowed out.

Those that have, must return to Gaza before their short-term permit expires.

Nadine's name was not on the list, but she says she has faith that she will be able to be with Sameer soon.



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