Several hundred Christians from the Gaza Strip have been allowed to leave the Islamist-ruled enclave to travel to Judea and Samaria for Pope Francis's upcoming visit, officials said Thursday.
"Israel allowed around 650 Christians in Gaza to travel to the West Bank during the pope's visit" this weekend, a security official told AFP.
Dozens of pilgrims passed through the Erez border crossing Thursday morning, an AFP correspondent said, referring to the Israeli-controlled personnel crossing from the Strip, which is run by Islamist movement Hamas.
Pope Francis arrives in Jordan on Saturday before travelling to the Judean town of Bethlehem, then to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
"This visit honors Palestinians and recognizes them as a people, and acknowledges their rights," said 22-year-old Milad Ayyad, whose mother will go while he is left behind.
Israel has only allowed Christians over 35 years of age to go due to security concerns.
Gaza is home to only some 1,500 Christians out of an overwhelmingly Muslim population of 1.7 million people. Most of them are Greek Orthodox, and only about 130 Roman Catholic.
They have been targeted in attacks by Islamists since Hamas took over Gaza in 2007.
A hand grenade exploded in the courtyard of a Roman Catholic church in Gaza City in February; and in 2011, a bomb targeted the director of Gaza's Anglican hospital, who escaped unharmed.