The politics of Egyptian pilgrimage to Jerusalem

Cairo - Hundreds of Egyptian Christians have left for Israel in the past few days to celebrate Easter, reported several news outlets.

The visits have increased since the 2012 passing of the late Pope Shenouda, who banned Christians from traveling to Israel in “unless with Muslims when it is liberated.” The ban was issued after late President Anwar al-Sadat, who was at odds of Pope Shenouda, signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979.

Shenouda, however, was not the first Orthodox pope to ban traveling to Jerusalem. His precedent late Pope Cyril VI banned pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1968, after its illegal annexation in 1967 by Israel.

The earlier ban was not only an objection to the annexation, but also because Ethiopian monks took over Deir el-Sultan Monastery in 1970, allegedly with the help of the Israeli government. Before that, it was under the control of the Egyptian Church for hundreds of years.

Shenouda’s death did not mean the ban came to an end. Since 2012′s Easter, representatives of the Egyptian Church have reiterated in press statements that it would deny the sacrament to Copts who defy its ban.

Copts defying the ban

However, Coptic intellectual Suleiman Shafiq and coordinator of the Secular Current in the Church Kamal Zakher told Youm7 on April 13, 2014 that the ban is not enforced and that many Copts have travelled to Jerusalem and were not punished at the church. Moreover, other Christian minorities from other sects are allowed to travel by their churches.

The Israeli Interior Ministry said 2,500 Egyptians entered the country during the first 10 days of April 2012, according to AP.

The owner of a tourist agency that organizes trips to Jerusalem told Youm7 that some 5,000 Christians traveled to Jerusalem this year. Refusing to give his name, he said his agency can organize trips to Jerusalem only after an approval from security services for each Christian.

Only Christians born before 1970 are allowed to go, unless an exceptional security approval is provided, he added.

Gamal Asaad, a prominent Coptic intellectual and writer, told Al-Nahar TV on April 15, 2014 that the Pope’s decision is more of a “political nature than a religious one,” and thus is not binding.

“However, those aware of the dangers of normalization and know about the Palestinian suffering and their cause should not go to Jerusalem whether or not there is a ban,” Asaad said.

Since Egypt and Israel signed a peace treaty in 1979, the joint relations have not amounted to anything more than an end to active military enmity, limited commercial relations and tourism from the Israeli side.

Asaad noted that pilgrimage to Jerusalem is not binding in the Christian faith and that Copts may seek blessings at holy sites where Virgin Mary and her baby Jesus are believed to have been in Egypt.

Egyptians’ visiting Jerusalem is not “normalization” but rather a move against the “Judaization” of the city, Ishaq Hanna, member of the Secular Current in the Orthodox Church told Al-Nahar TV.

Archbishop Bassanti, member of the Holy Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Church, told Al-Nahar TV in the same episode that “instead of being perceived as lacking loyalty to the region, our loyalty to the region is very important.”

Christians “mistreated” in Israel

The United Nation’s peace envoy to the Middle East Robert Serry demanded in a Saturday statement that all parties respect the right of religious freedom, citing “unacceptable behavior” from the Israeli security services, Reuters reported.

Israeli security officers prevented Palestinian worshippers and diplomats in a procession near the Holy Sepulchre Church, according to Serry’s statement.

Serry told the agency that he waited with three European diplomats for half an hour being crushed by a crowd against a barricade the Israeli police had set. His appeals to speak with a superior were ignored, Serry claimed.

Reuters quoted Terry Balata, a Palestinian witness, as saying that she heard an Israeli officer tell Serry “so what?” when he announced his title.

“I’m not saying I felt my life was in imminent danger, but this wasn’t something you associate with a peaceful procession for Easter,” Serry told Reuters.

Serry’s statement was labeled a display of a “serious problem of judgment” by spokesperson of Israeli Foreign Ministry Yigal Palmor, who denied the charges and said no violence was reported during the prayers, Reuters reported.

After returning to Egypt, some Egyptian Christians complained about “mistreatment” by the Israeli police in Jerusalem, Al-Ahram newspaper reported on May 6, 2013.

On May 9, 2013, Deputy Foreign Minister Ze’ev Elkin verbally apologized to Egypt for the “rough treatment” of Egyptian diplomats and a Coptic bishop on Joyous Saturday that year, according to The Times of Israel.

The Egyptian group, including acting ambassador Mostafa al-Qouni, was prevented from attending the holiday Mass at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the Coptic bishop was beaten until he lost consciousness, The Time of Israel reported.

“I do not think Israel welcomes Egyptian visits, whether by Copts or Muslims, even if it says otherwise,” Mohamed Mostafa, MENA’s reporter in Jerusalem, told Dream TV on April 18 in 2012.

Egyptian Copts were often mistreated at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, at airports, and as they were moving from one checkpoint to another without any regard that they were pilgrims, Mostafa said.

Dream TV anchor Mona el-Shazli quoted Israeli TV as saying that Gomaa’s visit is the beginning of “religious normalization,” but Mostafa said there had not been any official statements in this regard and that such media statements “do not reflect reality.”

“The Israeli guards behaved in an extremely rough manner. Everything [else] said is just baseless propaganda. Because there is not any kind of welcoming on the ground. Egyptian Christians complained about very bad treatment at airports and checkpoints,” Mostafa told ON TV April 18, 2012.

The Grand Mufti’s visit to Jerusalem

In February 2014, former Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa called on Muslims to visit Jerusalem “by the thousands” to prevent “controlling the city,” and to show solidarity with the Palestinian cause.

For a few days after that, Gomaa posted on his Twitter account pictures of Islamic sites in Jerusalem with the Arabic hash tag “I am Al-Aqsa [the second holiest site in Islam] do you know me?”

Gomaa had visited Jerusalem in April 2012, while he was the incumbent Grand Mufti of Egypt.

The visit triggered a wave of criticism and accusations of normalization of relations with Israel. The parliament, then-dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, condemned his visit and called on him to resign.

Al-Azhar issued a statement April 19 reiterating its opposition to visiting Israeli-occupied Jerusalem, and added that it had not been informed of Gomaa’s visit. The statement also included Gomaa’s statements on that his “unofficial visit” was organized by Jordan and that his did not receive an Israeli visa.

Gomaa said in several press statements that people in Jerusalem welcomed his visit and called on Muslims and Christians to visit their city to show moral and financial support.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called on Muslim and Christian Arabs to visit Palestine and Jerusalem to see how the Palestinian lands shrink due to the Israeli occupation, MENA reported on April 25, 2012.

At a meeting with an Arab youth delegation in Ramallah, Abbas said such visits would impede the elimination of the Palestinian presence and identity, according to MENA.

Palestinian Minister of Endowment Mahmoud el-Habbash told Al-jazeera Mubasher Misr channel in April 2012 that Palestinians welcome such as Gomaa’s visit because they “represent support to the Palestinian people and the cause of Jerusalem.”

Habbash added that these visit are especially valuable because there are not other forms of support to the old city.

In Gaza, Hamas spokesperson Samy Abou Zahri said that visit was “wrong” because the Israel would use such visits to legitimize occupation, and called on not repeating such visits, Aljazeera reported on April 29, 2012.

Egyptian Muslims visiting Jerusalem

Nermeen Taher, 27, is an Egyptian-American who lives in Cairo. She told The Cairo Post that she visited Jerusalem in May 2013 with her mother, brother and aunt to see the city “where prophets have been,” Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

“I wanted to see how people lived together in this ancient city under occupation. I used my American passport instead of my Egyptian one because I feared entry rejection or mistreatment especially that I am a Muslim,” Taher said.

“The Palestinians in the city were very happy to see Egyptians. I call on all Arabs and Muslims, especially those with foreign passports to visit Jerusalem to preserve its identity and to support Palestinians there,” Taher added.

Taher said that Palestinians living in Jerusalem are “hanging on” just for the sake of the cause, because they are regularly harassed by Israelis and are “forced to pay extremely high taxes.” She rejected all accusations of normalization, saying that Israel is trying to portray that Islamic sites in the city are “deserted,” and that it is a “duty” to counter this idea.

“If, for example, a family member is imprisoned and I do not recognize the authorities that imprisoned him. Would that prevent me from visiting him in prison? No!” Taher said.

Taher also said that any Sheikhs’ religious opinions that disapprove visiting Jerusalem are “nonsense.”

S.S., an Egyptian-Japanese woman, went to Jerusalem in 2007 with her Japanese passport. She said she would be “very upset” if someone accused her of normalizing relations with Israel.

She went to Jerusalem the first time as part of a trip organized by a professor at the American University in Cairo, and only students with foreign passports participated, S.S. said.

However, students of Arab origins were stopped at the borders to go through questions at the Israeli passport control, according to S.S. The group, which consisted of around twenty students, took a total of six hours at the borders to be allowed access into Israel, she added.

“Making a decision to go does not imply that I am normalizing a relationship that has some disturbing quality. If I have the advantage of a foreign passport, I would want to exercise the right to see the reality with my own eyes. And it was worth it.”