The Egyptian grand mufti - who has come under heat in Egypt for a visit to Jerusalem - defended his pilgrimage in front of an Islamic council in Cairo, saying his trip was made in the context of asserting Muslim claims to the city, Egyptian state-owned Al-Ahram reported on Friday.

Testifying for nearly three hours before a tribunal at the Islamic Research Academy led by Al-Azhar's grand sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb on Thursday, Dr. Ali Gomaa said he visited the city in order to show solidarity with the city's Palestinian residents, who are "crying out for the protection" from "Israeli occupation."

Following the hearings, the council renewed its travel ban on Jerusalem and the Al-Aksa mosque "which are under Occupation," Al-Ahram reported.

Egyptian religious officials, including members of Egypt's Coptic Christian church, have for decades refused to travel to Jerusalem in protest of what they perceive of as the Israeli occupation of east Jerusalem and the Palestinian areas.

The Egyptian mufti, who entered Jerusalem through Jordan and the West Bank, said he never received an Israeli visa, and denied claims that his trip encouraged normalization with Israel, according to the Egyptian newspaper.

Gomaa stressed that his pilgrimage wasn't "under the banner of normalization or under the Israeli flag," according to the report. He reiterated that the trip - which he announced Wednesday via Twitter - was "unofficial," and that he visited solely for religious reasons.

Gomaa informed the tribunal no Israeli flag flew inside the Al-Aksa mosque grounds, but that it hung outside the walls surrounding the Temple Mount, where IDF soldiers stood guard.

Gomaa stated that he visited Al-Aksa, the third holiest site for Muslims after mosques in Mecca and Medina, after receiving invitations from the emir of Qatar and from Jordan to visit Jerusalem, in addition to answering an open invitation by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Last month, Abbas called on Muslims worldwide during a conference on Jerusalem in Qatar to visit the city in order to slow Israeli efforts to "Judaize" the Israeli capital.

The mufti's visit to Jerusalem was the second time this month Egyptian pilgrims have drawn the ire of their country's religious authorities, who oppose such trips despite the peace accords Egypt signed with Israel in 1979.

Earlier this month, several Coptic Christians angered the Coptic authorities in Egypt when they made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Easter. After Egyptian media revealed that a new direct flight for Copts was flying pilgrims between Cairo and Tel Aviv, Coptic authorities said those visiting Jerusalem risked expulsion from the church on their return to Egypt, upholding a travel ban by the late Pope Shenouda III.

Many Egyptians continue to view Israel as an enemy state regardless of the peace treaty, which ended decades of belligerence between Israel and its southern neighbor. Several lawmakers in Egypt's new Islamist-dominated parliament, in addition to presidential candidates, have called for the peace accords to be reviewed and amended.

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