Controversy over Coptic pope’s visit to Jerusalem

Friday 18/12/2015
Leader of Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church Pope Tawadros II

CAIRO - Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II’s visit to Je­rusalem, where he at­tended the funeral of the archbishop of the city, has become a controversial point with some saying the trip was tac­tic normalisation of relations with Israel while others see it as support for Palestinians.

Pope Tawadros went to Jerusa­lem for the funeral of Archbishop Anba Abraham, who died Novem­ber 25th at age 72. While the Coptic church said the trip was solely to pay respects to the archbishop, a possible underlying message was seen by many Egyptians.

“The visit amounts to a normali­sation of relations with Israel,” said Amin Iskandar, a leading Christian activist. “Such a visit will deal a se­rious blow to the Palestinian strug­gle in general.”

The fear in nationalist circles in Egypt is that Tawadros’s visit to Jerusalem would encourage Egypt’s Christians, about 10% of the country’s population, to fol­low suit. That, nationalists and anti-normalisation activists claim, would benefit the Israeli economy and do nothing to aid the Palestin­ian struggle.

Egypt in 1979 became the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel but the peace is any­thing but warm. Egyptian profes­sional unions, public federations and religious institutions ban re­lations with the Jewish state and any steps towards normalisation in general.

In 2012, a visit to Jerusalem by Egyptian Mufti Sheikh Ali Gomaa caused controversy. A few years earlier, the Grand Imam of al-Azhar Sheikh Mohamed Sayed Tantawi was strongly criticised when he shook hands with Israeli president Shimon Peres in New York.

The Coptic pope’s visit to Jeru­salem is also leading to criticism. Leftist and nationalist parties is­sued statements against the visit and accused Tawadros of ignoring church tradition against the nor­malisation of relations with Israel.

The church says, however, that Tawadros was in Jerusalem for solely a humane reason, the funer­al of Anba Abraham. According to Coptic Church tradition, the arch­bishop of Jerusalem is regarded as the second most central figure in the church.

Pope Tawadros II is the first Cop­tic pope to visit Jerusalem in about 35 years. His predecessor, Pope Shenouda III, refused to travel to the city, insisting he would visit it with the grand imam of al-Azhar if it was liberated from Israeli occu­pation.

Shenouda also threatened to banish Copts from the church if they made a pilgrimage to Jerusa­lem.

It is unclear whether Tawadros’s Jerusalem visit would lead to re­consideration of the church’s po­sition on Jerusalem regarding pilgrimages. Some people say the church should allow visits to the old city, especially if such journeys benefit Palestinians.

“Some people die to see the sites of the city — some of them are 1,600 years old — and be there,” Kamal Zakhir, a Christian thinker, said. “Copts will not be normalis­ing relations with Israel if they visit Jerusalem.”

Zakhir is one of several Chris­tians calling for change. He argued that a prisoner — the Palestinians in this analogy — should not be aban­doned by his family, only because the relatives do not want to see the man jailed.

Palestinians living in Jerusalem have called on fellow Arabs to visit the old city to boost the Palestinian economy, accentuate Arab pres­ence in it and not leave them alone to face the Israeli occupation.

Mahmoud al-Habash, an adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said Palestinians badly needed Tawadros’s visit. He said the trip was a form of communi­cation with Palestinians who con­tinue to suffer under Israeli occu­pation.

Nevertheless, there are fears inside the church of a backlash against the visit.

Zakhir says attacks about the visit are based on political, not reli­gious reasons or feelings. Islamists, he said, are behind much of the criticism because Pope Tawadros supported the June 2013 revolution that ousted Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated president Muhammad Morsi.

“So, in criticising and defaming the pope, these people are criticis­ing and defaming the revolution,” he said. “It is not the church that is meant for this criticism, in fact, but the revolution itself.”