Egyptian Coptic pope in Jerusalem: Religious or political statement?

Some say the visit by Pope Tawadros II was ordinary; others believe it marks a normalization with Israel

Sonia Farid
Sonia Farid - Special to Al Arabiya News
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Egyptian Coptic Pope Tawadros II last month visited Jerusalem to attend the funeral prayer for Metropolitan Archbishop Abraham of Jerusalem and the Near East, who headed the Coptic diocese in the occupied city.

It was the first time the head of the Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church has visited the city since Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem in 1967.

While described by the Coptic Orthodox Church as an “exceptional situation” that would not change the church’s stance on Jerusalem and the Palestinian cause, the visit still raised eyebrows.

The debate that ensued was not only because the Pope went to Jerusalem via Tel Aviv, but also owing to the fact that the 1979 papal ban on pilgrimage to occupied Palestinian territories, issued by the late Pope Shenouda III, is still in effect.

This left Egyptians wondering whether the religious purpose could overshadow the political significance of such an unusual visit.

Nasserist Egyptian journalist Abdullah al-Sinnawi argued that the visit has weakened the resistance front against normalization with Israel, and set a precedent for a practice that most Egyptians reject.

“Because of this visit, travel agencies have started organizing trips to Jerusalem,” he said in an interview with al-Ghad al-Arabi channel, adding that such trips would deal a fatal blow to the legacy of Pope Shenouda III.

“The late pope defied the president and paid the price,” he added, in reference to Pope Shenouda’s rejection of late President Anwar Sadat’s request to accompany him to Jerusalem or to send Coptic delegations there as part of the Camp David agreement, for which the pope was placed under house arrest in a monastery in northern Egypt.

Sinnawi warned that Pope Tawadros’ visit could be taken against the church. “Extremist groups can take advantage of this visit to accuse the Coptic Church of supporting normalization and this, if escalated, could trigger a sectarian strife.”

Indeed, the ultra-orthodox al-Nour Party slammed the visit as a form of normalization with Israel. “The Coptic Church is part of the Egyptian nation and what its pope does affects the entire country,” said party chairman Yunis Makhioun in a statement he issued in response to the visit. “The pope is the first to visit Jerusalem in the modern era, thus violating the ban.”

Makhioun underlined the attention given by Israeli media to the visit as an indication of the negative impact it is already having in relation to Egypt’s stance on the Palestinian cause.

Coptic writer Kamal Zakher predicts that Israel will take advantage of the visit. “This will happen regardless of whether it was an official or a humanitarian visit,” he said in an interview with Sky News Arabia.

Former MP Gamal Asaad said that the Coptic Church had previously made a political stand against normalization with Israel and the pope’s visit has undermined this statement. “The visit indicates that the church is changing its stance on the Palestinian cause, especially [given] that the pope travelled via Tel Aviv rather than Jordan, and the church is no longer penalizing Copts for going to Jerusalem as it did at the time of Pope Shenouda III,” he said, adding that the pope could have sent a delegation from the church instead of going personally.

“The pope had also pledged earlier not to step into Jerusalem unless he is accompanied by al-Azhar Grand Imam following an invitation by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to break the siege on the Palestinian people.”

Coptic activist and head of the Minorities Department at Egyptian Commission of Rights and Freedoms Mina Thabet said that the religious value of Archbishop Abraham and his relationship to Pope Tawadros II makes the visit ordinary.

“This does not indicate a change in the church’s stance on the Palestinian cause and which represents the majority of Egyptian Christians. In fact, this visit supports the Palestinian cause and several Palestinian officials actually keep inviting Arabs to visit Jerusalem,” he said in an interview with Russia Today Arabic. “Plus, the church should not make political decisions such as the travel ban.”

Mohamed al-Sayed Ismail, head of the Islamic Awakening Scholars’ Council, agreed that the visit was to “the prisoners and not the prison wardens,” as he put it, and argued that the travel ban would only speed up the Judaization of Jerusalem. “The visit breaks the siege on the Palestinian people and gives them moral support,” he said in a statement the council issued following the visit.

For Egyptian analyst of Middle East affairs Ramy Aziz the ban on Jerusalem pilgrimages is more a formality than a reality. “Many Copts openly flouted the ban,’” he wrote in the Jerusalem Post. “For example, Copts didn’t refrain from visiting the Holy Land during Easter… the church is well aware of this fact.” Aziz argues that this ban, which he finds unfair to Copts, is actually the root of the controversy over the pope’s visit. “The church must review its stance and not confuse politics with religion, because a man’s visit to his place of worship doesn’t harm the community or his nation, even if others see it as scandalous.”

Fadi Youssef, founder of the Coalition for Coptic Egyptians, said that the visit was purely ceremonial and not a pilgrimage. “The pope was only leading the funeral prayer and did not make any other activities in the Holy Land,” he told the Egyptian daily independent al-Watan.

Nader Sobhi, founder of the Christian Youths Movement for Orthodox Copts, noted that the visit is at the heart of church traditions. “This is what happened with the funerals of other archbishops where the pope goes to lead the prayer where they died,” he said in an interview with al-Watan.

In this sense, Youssef said, a distinction should be made between the pilgrimage ban and this particular visit. “It will then be obvious that the visit does not in any way violate the papal decree issued by Pope Shenouda III.”

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