NEW YORK — Following protests, Catholics in Gaza have been granted permits to celebrate Christmas in Bethlehem, after Israeli officials had previously indicated that they would deny permission to take part in the long-standing tradition.

In a last minute decision on Sunday, Israel said that permits would be granted to Gazans “in accordance with security assessments and without regard to age.”

The decision comes after Catholic leaders, including the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, sent a letter to Israeli officials on Saturday asking that they reverse course and grant travel permits for Christians in Gaza to travel to Bethlehem during the holidays.

“Just as it is permitted for nations from all over the world to enter Bethlehem to celebrate Christmas, it is also the right of Christians from Gaza to celebrate the birth of Jesus the messiah in the place of his birth,” they wrote.

“We call on Israeli authorities to allow, without further delay, Christians from Gaza to go to Bethlehem to celebrate the holiday,” they continued.

According to the Israeli news site Haaretz, 950 requests to travel to Bethlehem and Jerusalem were filed to the Israeli Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), the Israeli defense body responsible for Palestinian civilian affairs, but only 100 were previously approved for individuals over the age of 45.

Over 1,000 Christians live in Gaza, alongside 2 million Muslim neighbors, though the Christian population is rapidly declining. The coastal region, which borders Egypt, is a self-governed Palestinian territory and has long been plagued with conflict. The strip is one of the most densely populated areas in the world, and Israel restricts entry and exits in an effort to control and weaken the terrorist group Hamas.

Christians living in the strip — the majority of whom are Greek Orthodox —  have dwindled dramatically since Hamas took power in 2007. The conditions have continued to deteriorate with unemployment at 53 percent, and in 2017, foreign aid accounted for 45 percent of total income in Gaza, threatening the region with economic collapse.

As Christmas holidays are fast approaching, Christians in the region were particularly anxious that they would not be able to travel as normal to some of the most sacred sites where many of them join family members for the occasion. Last year, authorities granted some 700 permits for travel.

Earlier this month, Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the apostolic administrator of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, traveled to Gaza to celebrate Christmas early with the minority Catholic population where he weighed in on the situation.

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“Every year we have the same problem, the permits to go from Gaza to Bethlehem and vice versa. We know that Gaza is closed and we can’t accept the situation,” Pizzaballa said at the time. “We will do all that is possible to change it, but meanwhile despite the situation — we want to celebrate.”

Christmas marks the high point of the tourist season for Bethlehem, the site of Christ’s birth, with an estimated 1.4 million pilgrims expected to visit this holiday.

Follow Christopher White on Twitter: @cwwhite212 

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