Thursday,23 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1273, (3 - 9 December 2015)
Thursday,23 May, 2019
Issue 1273, (3 - 9 December 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Not a ‘political’ visit

Michael Adel assesses the reactions to Pope Tawadros II’s visit to Jerusalem

Al-Ahram Weekly

When Archbishop Anba Abraham, the bishop of Jerusalem and a friend and mentor of Pope Tawadros II, died on Wednesday 25 November, the Coptic Church found itself in a quandary. The second highest ranking clergyman in the Coptic hierarchy had left instructions that he would be buried in Jerusalem.

Pope Tawadros flew to Jerusalem to perform the last rites and immediately found himself at the centre of a storm of criticism. The church, it was claimed, was normalising ties with Israel.

Since 1980 the Coptic Church has threatened members of its congregation who visit Jerusalem with excommunication. The decision still stands. The pope’s visit, insisted the church, was not intended to signal a change in policy but was an exception, in unprecedented circumstances, to a rule that remains in force.

In Cairo reaction to the visit was mixed. According to church sources, the pope’s decision to go to Jerusalem was made after extensive talks with government officials. When Knesset members expressed a desire to meet the pope the church turned down their requests, eager to deflect accusations the visit had any political aspects.

The pope held a mass in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre at 5am on Friday 27 November attended by bishops, monks, nuns, and key members of the congregation.

During Pope Tawadros’ visit he was presented with a box containing Great Saturday oil, a rock from the holy tomb and holy wax by Adib Joudaal-Hoseini, holder of the key to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

“I am not going [to Jerusalem] for sight-seeing but to lead a mass,” sources in the church cited the pope as saying.

Archbishop Abraham’s official title was Bishop of Jerusalem and the Near East. Before his appointment by Pope Shenouda III he was known as Monk Cedric. When Pope Tawadros first took his vows at the Anba Bishoy Monastery in Wadi Al-Natroun Cedric acted as his mentor, recalls Bishop Sergius Sergius, secretary of the patriarchate.

Pope Shenouda III chose the name Abraham when Cedric was appointed Bishop of Jerusalem.

Anba Morcos, bishop of Shoubra Al-Kheima and head of the Synod Media Committee, stressed that the pope’s position on visits to Jerusalem remains unchanged following the holding of the funeral mass.

“The pope does not intend to discontinue the ban on travel to Jerusalem despite his ritual visit following the death of the Church’s second ranking clergyman,” Morcos told Al-Ahram Weekly.

Coptic Church spokesman Anba Boulos Halim said the pope only travelled to Jerusalem because Archbishop Abraham had made it clear in his will he was not to be buried anywhere else.

“The church doesn’t base its decisions on political equations but on its service to the delegation and on its patriotic sentiments,” said Halim.

The spokesman added Pope Tawadros had explained the church’s position on visits to Jerusalem to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas more than once.

Political analyst Heba Al-Bishbishi describes criticism of the pope’s visit as “political fantasia” given that Tawadros made it clear the journey was for church business and had nothing to do with politics. The presence of Arabs in Jerusalem, says Al-Bishbishi, sends a message to Israeli settlers that Jerusalem is Arab and a cradle for all religions.

Ishak Ibrahim, head of the religious freedom desk at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), wrote on his Facebook page that the visit “is an admission of a reality that has existed since the last years of the papacy of Shenouda III”.

“Hundreds go (to Jerusalem), ignoring the threat of excommunication,” he said.

Asked if the visit will open the door for Copts to visit Jerusalem, Kamal Zakher, a secular Coptic activist, pointed out that the government, not the church, controls visits to Jerusalem and companies organising tours to Jerusalem have been operating for years with the knowledge of the state.

Author and researcher Suleiman Shafik, a critic of the pope’s visit, argues that it betrayed a lack of “prudence” and may make Copts the target of extremists. The upper echelons of the church hierarchy, he said, seems to suffer a shortage of “wise men”.

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