Monday,23 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1240, (2 - 8 April 2015)
Monday,23 July, 2018
Issue 1240, (2 - 8 April 2015)

Ahram Weekly

A political decision?

The annual controversy over travel to Jerusalem by Egypt’s Copts during the Easter ceremonies has once again emerged this year, reports Michael Adel

A political decision?
A political decision?
Al-Ahram Weekly

With the approach of Easter each year, many Copts in Egypt court controversy by deciding to travel to Jerusalem despite opposition by the Coptic Orthodox Church headed by Pope Tawadros II, Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of the See of Saint Mark, who objects to visits by Copts to Jerusalem while it remains under Israeli occupation.

This is an extension of the position of the late Pope Shenouda III who stated that “I will never go to Jerusalem except hand-in-hand with my Muslim brothers after the end of the Israeli occupation.”
Nevertheless, the first group of Coptic pilgrims left for Jerusalem this week via Jordan to celebrate Holy Week and Easter in the city, and more will travel in the coming days.

Officials at Cairo Airport said the first group included 23 Christians from the Catholic, Protestant and Roman Orthodox sects, and a travel agency had finalised their travel arrangements on Jordanian Airlines to Amman. From there, the group would travel to Jerusalem to begin the pilgrimage and visit the holy sites, the officials said.

They said the pilgrims had the correct travel permits and most of them were from Christian sects that did not ban travel to Israel, such as Orthodox Christians.

They expected more than 6,000 Copts to travel in the next few days on several extra flights by Air Sinai directly to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, as well as EgyptAir and Jordanian Airlines to Amman and then to Jerusalem by land.

The Coptic Orthodox Church bans travel to Israel since the late Pope Shenouda III issued an edict banning Copts from going on pilgrimages to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
 “I call on all Copts who yearn to visit Jerusalem to exercise self-restraint and not be carried away by their emotions because the right time has not come yet,” he said.

 “There are many holy sites in Egypt, and our emotions should not rush us to visit Occupied Jerusalem without considering the patriotic and political implications of a visit and the absence of peace in the region. The Palestinian people are still suffering from the horrors of the Israeli occupation and oppression.”

“It is difficult to reverse the ban in the absence of a comprehensive and just peace,” he added. “Allowing Copts to travel means hundreds of thousands of them will visit the Holy Land, boosting the economy of Israel and straining relations between Copts and their Muslim brethren.”

He threatened to deny violators communion, saying there could be “no communion or blessings for those who travel to the Holy Land.”

The edict is still in place, and Pope Tawadros II has continued the ban, viewing travel to the Holy Land as a form of normalising relations with Israel.

However, despite the ban by the Orthodox Church, some Copts have violated the edict by following their dream of going to Jerusalem even if they fear the Church’s reaction after their return from the city.

Christians around the world travel to Jerusalem on pilgrimages, but Egyptians constitute less than three per cent of such pilgrims. However, this suggests the ban only applies to Copts in Egypt, while those in the US, Europe and Australia freely travel to Jerusalem in violation of the papal edict.

One expatriate bishop told the Weekly that some organisations owned by Coptic businessmen in the US and Canada had organised trips to Jerusalem for Coptic young people even though they were aware of the Pope’s ban.

They were not penalised by the Church for going to Jerusalem, he said.

Bishop Abraham of the Coptic Church in Jerusalem has compiled a list of businessmen and Coptic institutions that sponsor such trips, with a view to reminding those organising them of the Pope’s decision and the penalties that could be incurred.

One pilgrim to Jerusalem said the city housed Egyptian treasures, explaining that these were “churches and monasteries belonging to the Egyptian Coptic Church that are visited by millions of Christian pilgrims from all corners of the world. They are the core and heart of the Coptic presence in Jerusalem.”

Father Misaheel, the pastor of St Helena’s Church, had met Egyptian Copts and Muslims to explain the features of the Church that was built in 325 CE, he said.

The Egyptian churches are divided on the issue. “Our position on visiting Jerusalem is clear,” said Father Bolos Halim, a spokesman of the Orthodox Church. “Copts are not allowed to visit the city or enter it without our Muslim brothers. This is a firm patriotic principle of the Coptic Church.”

Bishop Basanti of Helwan and Maasara said that when expatriate Coptic businessmen sponsored trips to Jerusalem this violated the Pope’s edict and was a violation of the decision of the Church.

“I believe only a few people do this and Coptic families and youth overseas in general respect the decision of the Church,” he said.

Father Rafiq Greish, director of the Catholic Church’s press office in Egypt, said that “the Catholic Church has no objections to pilgrimages by Copts to Jerusalem, despite the objections of the late Pope Shenouda III.”

He said that Israel did not allow Christian children or young people to go on pilgrimages, but only those over 50 years of age.

Father Rifaat Fikri, head of the media committee of the Evangelical Church Congregation, said traveling to Jerusalem was a personal choice and the right of movement and travel was granted to every human being.

It supported travel to Jerusalem to visit the holy sites, he said, adding that the travel ban by the Orthodox Church was “a political not a religious decision.”

Kamal Zakher, the founder of the Church’s secular current, said Pope Tawadros’s adherence to the ban on Copts visiting Jerusalem was a form of “moral obligation” to the decision of the late Pope.

He urged the Church to review the ban because it had “nothing to do with faith” and was “not a patriotic position.” He said that nearly 60,000 visitors to Jerusalem were Copts.

The Catholic and Anglican Churches do not ban pilgrimages to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Safwat Al-Bayadi, former head of the Anglican Church in Egypt, said that travel to Jerusalem for Holy Week and to be blessed at the Church of the Resurrection was a “matter of faith” and “religion should not be mixed with politics.”

He said it was the right of Copts to go on pilgrimages to Jerusalem, refusing to see it as a form of normalising relations with Israel.

Such visits supported Jerusalem against Israel’s attempts at Judification and the destruction of Christian and Islamic holy sites, he said, referring to Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas’s call on Arabs and Muslims to visit Jerusalem in support of the holy city.

During Easter, Copts ignoring the travel ban travel to Jerusalem to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Palm Sunday and to attend mass and then visit the Mount of Olives and participate in celebrations with other Christian sects.

Other rituals include visiting the Dominus Flevit Church where Jesus wept and the Church of St Stephen, the first Christian martyr.

Copts then return to the Church of the Resurrection to experience Holy Week and pass the 14 Stations of the Cross passed by Jesus. They conclude their pilgrimage by visiting David’s Tomb and St Mark’s Monastery, before gathering at the grave of Christ, the last stop before their return to Egypt.

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