EREZ CROSSING, Israel (AP) - More than 500 members of the Gaza Strip's tiny Christian community left the blockaded territory on Thursday to participate in Christmas celebrations in Jesus' traditional birthplace of Bethlehem.
The Israeli military coordinated the rare passage to the West Bank ahead of the holiday, saying it was part of its goal to ensure freedom of worship for all religions.
About 3,500 Christians live in Gaza among 1.5 million Muslims. Relations have traditionally been good, though there has been sporadic violence against Christians since the Islamic Hamas movement wrestled control of the strip three years ago.
Residents leaving Gaza on Thursday played down any differences with Hamas, saying they were in solidarity as Palestinians in the struggle against Israel.
"Of course I am very happy that I will see my relatives and join them for Christmas. It happens only once a year," said Hatem Al-Far. "The only problem is they (the Israelis) did not issue permits for all of my children."
During the Hamas takeover, vandals ransacked a Roman Catholic convent and an adjacent school, breaking crosses and smashing the face of a ceramic Jesus.
In the following months, unidentified assailants detonated a bomb outside a Christian school, firebombed a Christian bookshop and killed a Christian who worked at one.
Hamas says it is committed to protecting the Christian minority, but no arrests have been made in any of the incidents.
Christians currently comprise less than 2 percent of the population in the West Bank and Gaza, compared to about 15 percent in 1950. Like many other Christian communities across the Middle East, many have moved abroad to flee political tensions or in search of economic opportunities.
Rev. David Neuhaus, the Roman Catholic vicar for the Hebrew-speaking Christian population in the Holy Land, said violence against Gaza Christians was largely the work of "Islamic fundamental vigilante justice," and not the Hamas regime. Nonetheless, he said Christian daily life was extremely difficult.
"They are not targeted by authorities but life is not simple when you live minute by minute according to the mores of a different religion," he said. "The Islamic lifestyle that is being imposed is foreign to how Christians lead their lives."