EGYPTIAN PRESIDENT Abdel Fattah al-Sisi speaks next to Coptic Pope Tawadros II.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Egypt’s Coptic Pope Tawadros II departed for a controversial visit to Israel on Thursday to attend the funeral of a senior church official, a church spokesman said.
“The decision by Pope Tawadros to travel to Jerusalem at the head of a distinguished delegation of bishops to participate in the funeral of Archbishop Anba Abraham will create a huge firestorm in Egypt,” Samuel Tadros, an Egypt expert and research fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, told The Jerusalem Post.
Abraham died on Wednesday and the funeral is set to take place on Saturday.
“Jerusalem has always held a special place in Copts’ hearts, with people wishing to make the pilgrimage before they died,” said Tadros, adding that following the 1967 war the journey became unfeasible.
This is the first Coptic papal visit to Jerusalem since 1832, noted Tadros.
After Israel and Egypt signed the 1979 peace treaty, the previous pope, Shenouda III, barred Copts from traveling to Israel’s capital. “His decision was driven by his political consideration that if they go, Copts would be tarred as the traitors of the Arab world, so he insisted they would only enter Jerusalem together with Muslims,” explained Tadros.
“While the Church will attempt to portray the Tawadros visit as different from the pilgrimage, no one will buy that line. The pope must have known clearly that he will pay a political price for his visit, but as he has shown since he became pope in 2012, once he is convinced of the soundness of a decision, he takes it disregarding the political costs.”
The Coptic leader’s visit will likely pave the way for “a significant increase in the number of Copts going on the pilgrimage to Jerusalem in April,” he added.
Zvi Mazel, who served as Israel’s sixth ambassador to Egypt and is currently a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and a contributor to this newspaper, said that the visit might be a positive signal, “since it will be quite difficult for the pope to maintain the ban on visiting Israel to his flock.”
It is also probable, said Mazel, that Tawadros “got a green light from President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi , whose country maintains close intelligence relations with Israel against the background of the ongoing terrorist war of Islamic State against Egypt in Sinai.”
The Copts in Egypt, who constitute about 10 percent of the population, are under pressure from their Muslim compatriots to oppose “normalization” with Israel.
However, conditions have changed since the Copts supported Sisi’s coming to power, and “have a new confidence to act according to their feelings,” he added.
A church statement said: “The pope headed a delegation of Egyptian clerics to al-Quds [Jerusalem] to pay tribute to the oldest among the church archbishops and most reputable after the pope in the Coptic Holy Synod,” Daily News Egypt reported.
The church rejected speculation that the trip was motivated by other interests beside the funeral, according to the report.
“The position of the church remains unchanged, which is not going to Jerusalem without all our Egyptian (Muslim) brothers,” church spokesman Boulos Halim told AFP.
The Sisi government has made significant efforts to overcome years of Coptic oppression at the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood, especially during the short presidency of the Brotherhood’s Muhammad Morsi, which was characterized by numerous attacks on individual Copts and churches.
In February, in response to the beheading of 21 Egyptian Copt laborers in neighboring Libya by Islamic State terrorists, Sisi ordered an air strike that reportedly killed more than 50 of the terrorists.