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Coptic Pilgrimage to Jerusalem: Religious Right or Normalisation?

Senior Writer Nancy Fares examines the Copts' pilgrimage to Jerusalem since Pope Shenouda III's 1980 ban all the way to Pope Tawadros II's visit to the holy city.

Up until 1967, Egyptians from across different faiths freely travelled to the holy city of Jerusalem for different purposes. The city is not only home to Christianity's holiest site, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, but within its walls lies Islam's third holiest site, Al Aqsa Mosque.

Following the 1967 Israeli occupation of Eastern Jerusalem, along with Egypt's Sinai and Syria's Golan Heights, getting into Jerusalem for Egyptians entailed obtaining permits from an enemy state, a situation that put an abrupt end to the travel of Egyptian visitors and pilgrims to the city. In 1970, things took another turn for the worse after Israeli forces stormed Al Sultan Monastery, which was managed and owned by Egypt's Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, and transferred ownership to the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church instead.

The aforementioned events brought the annual Egyptian pilgrimage to Jerusalem to a halt. A decade later, Egypt and Israel had just signed the Camp David Peace Accord when Pope Shenouda III, nevertheless, issued a ban on visiting the city and warned that the Copts who do so would face excommunication. "From the Arabic national point we should not abandon our Palestinian brothers and our Arabic brothers by normalising our relations with the Jews. From the church's point of view, Copts who go to Jerusalem betray their church in the case of "Al-Sultan Monastery" which Israel refuses to give to the Copts," read the papal decision, which also stated that the ban is to be automatically renewed every year so long as Eastern Jerusalem remains under the Israeli occupation.

Banning copts from entering Jerusalem was never Pope Shenouda II's decision to make

For the long decades since, the ban remained in effect, however doing little to sway Egypt's Copts from setting sail to Jerusalem to perform their religious rituals. Numerous Coptic bishops, over the years, went against papal decisions and granted their followers with permits to travel to Jerusalem without fear of facing excommunication. However the equation isn't that simple, for entering Jerusalem meant getting explicit permits from Egyptian security forces as well as Israeli ones. The process was seen by many, Copts and otherwise, as blunt normalisation of relationships with the Israeli state and a subtle acknowledgement of their authority over holy city.

In addition to the permits, Copts hoping to travel to Jerusalem had to be over 60 years old. The minimum age was later reduced to 50 and currently stands at 45. For anyone who's younger, they have to apply for a Israeli visa through their Cairo embassy, in which case they get immediately summoned by the Egyptian police and investigated for their purposes of visiting the embassy.

The road to Jerusalem is through Sinai. Pilgrimage troops would be stopped at Egyptian checkpoints just like everybody else travelling through the peninsula. The land border at Taba would be their crossing point into the state of Israel. The land route was used for years, but as Northern Sinai fell into turmoil as a result of the ongoing insurgency against ISIS-affiliated militias, Copts would only get into Sinai on Tel-Aviv-bound flights. Those flights are operated by Air Sinai, which is managed and owned by Egypt Air, and it organises daily trips from Cairo to Tel-Aviv to service the growing number of Egyptian pilgrims, who amounted to 4000 in 2018 alone.After Pope Shenouda III passed in 2012, Pope Tawadros II took office and became the head of Egypt's Coptic Orthodox Church. In 2015, an unprecedented papal trip to Jerusalem sparked wide-controversy. For the first time, Egypt's Coptic Pope landed in Israeli-controlled territory to join the funeral of a prominent religious figure in Jerusalem. The visit was seen by many as an act of normalisation and an effective reversal of Pope Shenouda III's ban on visiting occupied Jerusalem. Furthermore, Tawadros announced in a televised interview (below) that banning copts from entering Jerusalem was never Pope Shenouda II's decision to make.
Following the visit, Egypt's Constitutional Court issued a 2017 decision allowing Egyptian Copts the right to travel to Jerusalem as part of their religious practices. Not stopping there, the court also granted Copts the right to a one-month paid leave to that end, making Pilgrimage to Jerusalem a legal and protected right of the country's Copts. But the question remains, is Coptic Pilgrimage to Jerusalem normalisation with an enemy? Or is it, in fact, normal?

Originally published on ElFasla.com.


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