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Some Gaza Christians Get Israeli Permits to Attend Papal Mass

Pope Benedict XVI is in Israel as part of his pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Hundreds of Christians in the Gaza Strip applied for Israeli permits to leave the territory to attend a Papal Mass. The IDF, Israel's military, says 150 have received permits to travel through Israel either to Jerusalem or Bethlehem, in the occupied territories, to attend a service. After the recent conflict in Gaza, some Palestinians are calling on the pope to travel to the Gaza Strip to observe the situation there firsthand.

Shadi Abu Dawoud is a Christian in the Gaza Strip, part of a tiny minority among majority Muslims. He was hoping to see Pope Benedict during the pontiff's visit to the Holy Land. He, and more than 200 other Christians in Gaza, applied for permission to enter Israel to see the pope. But Israel says no Gazan under the age of 35 will be permitted to travel through Israel to either Bethlehem or Jerusalem, where the pope will celebrate Mass.

Abu Dawoud, who's 31, had not been hopeful. "We applied for 700 permissions during Easter to visit Jerusalem but nobody was allowed out," he said.

He says Christians in Gaza are treated unfairly by Israel, and the recent conflict in Gaza has made life worse.

In December, Israel launched a three-week offensive in Gaza, with heavy bombardments and a ground campaign. Israel said its aim was to stop rocket attacks and arms smuggling from Egypt into the Hamas-ruled Strip.

More than 1,000 Palestinians and 13 Israelis died in the fighting. The United Nations Human Rights Council is investigating whether war crimes were committed.

Abu Dawoud and his wife, Renda say their children are still frightened. His wife says she is happy that the pope has chosen to visit the Holy Land and she hopes he will highlight the suffering in Gaza. "We need this visit, especially now because of the problems we are under now. It is difficult to wait for the world to notice but even if the world forgets us, God will not forget us," she said.

Poverty and unemployment in Gaza are widespread. Israel controls the crossing points into the Strip. And although it has allowed humanitarian aid and fuel to get through, construction materials have not been okayed, and houses destroyed by the bombings are not being rebuilt.

Eyad Sarraj, a psychiatrist and advocate for Palestinian rights, believes the Pope's message of peace will be weak if he doesn't come to Gaza and see conditions for himself. "I think he should be more courageous and come. For the sake of Israel and for the sake of the Palestinians we need all these important people to come to the Holy Land in Israel and Palestine and put the message across very strongly," he said.

That message of peace, cooperation and compassion is what Adu Dawoud wants to hear, although it will not be in person, at least not this time.