Egypt’s Copts on ‘forbidden’ path to Jerusalem, despite vague pilgrimage ban

Sonia Farid
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The ban on pilgrimage to Jerusalem is associated to the late Pope Shenouda III who objected to the 1979 Peace Treaty between Egypt and Israel and refused to accompany Sadat on his visit to Israel. “I will never go to Jerusalem except hand-in-hand with my Muslim brothers after the end of the Israeli occupation,” said Shenouda in his famous statement, justifying the ban whose violators were denied communion and at times threatened with excommunication.

The ban, however, dates back to his predecessor Pope Cyril VI, who initiated the ban in the wake of the 1967 defeat, in which Israel occupied Jerusalem. Throughout that time, few Copts defied the ban and many of them asked for forgiveness following their return, some through public apologies in official newspapers. The situation, however, started taking a different turn in 2012 when Pope Tawadros II took office. Cairo International Airport has been reportedly witnessing unprecedented growth in pilgrimage trips during the Holy Week of 2018, all operated by Air Sinai that takes them to Ben-Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv and from there to Jerusalem. The trips are organized by private travel agencies, which were for the first time in decades allowed to post their ads inside churches.


'Ban not revoked, but also not enforced'

The numbers of Copts travelling this year to Jerusalem is estimated at 7,000, according to Naguib Gobrail, the lawyer of the Coptic Orthodox Church and head of the Egyptian Union for Human Rights. “The ban was not officially revoked, but it is not enforced at the moment,” Gobrail said. “Archbishop Antonios, head of the Coptic Church in the Holy Land asked Pope Tawadros not to penalize pilgrims since their trips preserve the Christian identity of the city and protect the lands of the church from the Zionists.” Gobrail said that restrictions were eased gradually so that at first only dual nationals and senior citizens were allowed to travel to Jerusalem then everyone else followed later. Gobrail argued that another factor which contributed to the increasing numbers of pilgrims is the trip Pope Tawadros made to Jerusalem in November 2015 to attend the funeral of late Archbishop Abraham at the head of a delegation of bishops and church officials. “Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas also asked that Copts, like all Arabs, should travel to Jerusalem,” he added. Gobrail, however, is not in favor of pilgrimage to Jerusalem since the ban is initially political. “I refuse to put Copts in a situation where they might be accused of aiding in normalizing ties with Israel.”

Journalist Osama Salama questions the impact of trips made by Arabs to Jerusalem and which, according to the argument supported by the Palestinian Authority, preserves the identity of the city. “When Pope Shenouda issued the ban on Copts, he was praised for his rejection of normalizing ties with Israel and he was considered an Arab champion. He was even called ‘the pope of Arabs,’” he wrote, adding that Pope Tawadros was expected to follow suit since pilgrimage trips to Jerusalem have not proven to benefit the Palestinian cause. Salama argued that the trips made by Western Christians to Jerusalem did not stop the Israeli authorities from encroaching upon churches. “This was shown in the taxes imposed on churches a few weeks ago and which led to the closure of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher,” he explained, in reference to the proposed tax policy and land expropriation law that were seen by different Christian leaders, Armenian, Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic, as an unprecedented violation of the rights of Christians in Jerusalem. “This means that religious visits and pilgrimages never stop Israeli plans and the same applies to the trips made by Copts,” he added. Salama also pointed that keeping the ban while not enforcing it harms the church and weakens its positions. “The ban should either be entirely lifted or strictly applied, but this in-between situation is extremely unwise.”

Paid leave from Egypt, visas from Israel

Journalist Mohamed Salah Qassem argued that the Egyptian judiciary played a major part in increasing the number of Coptic pilgrims when the Supreme Constitutional Court ruled in February 2017 that Christian civil servants have the right to a month of paid leave to perform pilgrimage once in their lifetime like their Muslim counterparts. “The verdict was based on the unconstitutionality of the article in the Civil Servants Law that allows Muslim employees paid leave to perform pilgrimage since Christians are not given the same privilege to visit their holy sites in Jerusalem,” he wrote. According to Qassem, the repercussions of this verdict mean more steps towards normalization with Israel.

“Pilgrims travelling to Jerusalem will obtain visas from Israel and the money they spend there will be in shekels and will boost the Israeli economy and tourism industry,” he explained. “Plus those trips will not change the reality of the occupation or reduce the suffering of Arabs living there, but will rather acknowledge the status quo.” For Qassem, the way Israeli press dealt with Pope Tawadros’s Jerusalem visit is indicative of how pilgrimages are viewed by Israel. “Israel considered the pope’s visit a step towards normalization and in the same year more the 6,000 Coptic pilgrims travelled to Jerusalem.”

Testimonies by pilgrims, however, indicate that Palestinians benefit more from those visits than Israelis. According to Milad Rizq, the pilgrims’ relationship with Israel ends with the visa. “This is the only document that has an Israeli stamp,” he said. “Everything else involves only Palestinians.” Rizq explained that pilgrims stay in areas controlled by Palestinians whether in Jerusalem or Bethlehem. “The hotels we stay in are owned by Palestinians and our transportation there is organized by Palestinians, too.”

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