EGYPTIAN PRESIDENT Abdel Fattah al-Sisi speaks next to Coptic Pope Tawadros II.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Pope Tawadros II, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, visited Jerusalem in November to pray over the body of Archbishop Anba Abraham, the leader of the Coptic Church in the Holy Land. The visit caused much controversy in Egypt, and in particular in Egyptian media, literary and political circles.
The root of the controversy is the Church’s obstinate stance concerning visiting the sacred land, which dates back to pope Cyril VI, 116th pope of the Coptic Church, who banned such visits following the 1967 war. Pope Cyril’s decision was bolstered by pope Shenouda III (the 117th pope), who introduced a decree forbidding all Coptic followers to visit the Holy Land.
Shenouda’s prohibition came on the heels of his refusal to accompany Egyptian president Anwar Sadat on Sadat’s visits to Israel; Shenouda opposed Sadat’s request to send Coptic delegates to Jerusalem as called for in the Camp David agreement in the late 1970s. Shenouda was placed under house arrest by Sadat in the monastery of Anba Bishowa in the Alntroan valley.
This measure was part of a series of arrests of prominent Egyptian figures in 1981.
Pope Tawadros followed in the footsteps of his predecessors, stressing the ban on Coptic Christians entering the Holy Land.
However, many Copts openly flouted the ban. For example, Copts didn’t refrain from visiting the Holy Land during Easter, and an estimated 5,000 even registered their presence in the banned country.
The Church is well aware of this fact; all that is needed to make such a visit is for the traveler concerned to be over 45 years of age and in possession of a recommendation letter from any church in Egypt, whether Catholic, Evangelical or any other denomination.
Indeed, many Copts openly view the restriction as having more to do with politics than religion.
Moreover, pope Tawadros is far from the first public Egyptian figure to visit Israel.
The first, as mentioned above, was the late Anwar Sadat, who delivered his famous speech to the Knesset in 1977.
THE SECOND was popular Egyptian writer Ali Salem, who visited Israel in 1994. After his visit, Salem published a book entitled A Journey to Israel, in which he gives a detailed account of his trip and emphasizes that Israel is not the enemy, but rather Hamas. The third was none other than president Hosni Mubarak, in 1995. Mubarak was accompanied by a prestigious delegation including such figures as Amr Moussa, former Egyptian foreign minister and secretary general of the Arab League. The fourth was Sheikh Ali Gomaa, former grand mufti of Egypt, who visited the Aksa Mosque in April 2012 under Israeli protection.
Turning back to Tawadros’ visit and its consequences, responses were diverse. Abdallah al-Senawi sees its outcome as an increase in sectarian tensions and damaging both to Shenouda’s legacy and the position of the Coptic Church in Egypt.
In the same context, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh Abdel Hady, former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood and founder of the Strong Egypt Party, tweeted: “The Egyptian Church is a church for the nation; Tawadros’ visit to Jerusalem is a crack in the public resistance’s wall against the Zionist enemy.”
Abdel Hady’s words are evidence of a delusional mind. What resistance? What “crack”? Egypt has diplomatic and economic relations with Israel, not to mention a peace treaty. It is crystal clear that Abdel Hady – a former presidential candidate in 2012 – has forgotten that had he won the elections, he would now be obliged to abide by the terms of that peace treaty.
Setting aside such incitement, it is every man’s right to visit holy sites in accordance with his religion, regardless of their whereabouts and the entity in charge of them. Many Copts feel the same, as evidenced by the annual pilgrimages to the Holy Land in defiance of the Church’s recommendations.
Consequently, the Church must review its stance and not confuse politics with religion, because a man’s visit to his place of worship doesn’t harm the community or his nation, even if others see it as scandalous. These skeptics have unclear vision and need to solve their problem without prejudice to Coptic rights.
The author is an Egyptian writer and analyst of Middle East affairs, working on a master’s degree in political science from the University of Rome.