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Egyptian pope makes rare visit to Holy Land

Pope makes exception to Church ban on visiting occupied Palestine until liberation

Gulf News

Cairo: The head of Egypt’s Coptic Church Tawadross II Thursday left for occupied Jerusalem on the first visit by a Coptic pontiff to the Holy Land in more than four decades.

Tawadross II, who was installed as head of the Middle East’s largest Christian community in 2012, will lead the funeral of Metropolitan Archbishop of Jerusalem and the Near East Abraham, who died on Wednesday.

Archbishop of Jerusalem is the second most important cleric in the Coptic Holy Synod.

The Coptic Church has observed a decades-old ban on trips to Jerusalem because of Israel’s occupation of the holy city.

In late 1970s, the then pontiff Shenouda III of the Coptic Church banned Coptic Christians from visiting occupied Jerusalem until the Palestinian-Israeli dispute is resolved. Tawadross II, who succeeded Shenouda, has adopted the same stance.

Tawadross II’s current trip to occupied Jerusalem is “exceptional”, according to a Church official.

“The stance of the Coptic Orthodox Church concerning travelling to the Holy Land will always remain the same,” Boules Halim, the spokesperson for the Coptic Church, told the semi-official news site Al Ahram Online. “The Pope’s visit came as an exception. It is for offering condolences and nothing more,” he said.

“Pope Tawadros II will not make any visits in the Holy Land, and he will return to Cairo immediately following the funeral prayers. Copts will only go to [occupied] Jerusalem with their Muslim brethren.”

Political expert Salah Al Hadi downplayed the political implications of the trip.

“It is a protocol visit dictated by the Church’s rules,” he said. “Archbishop Abraham was regarded as the No. 2 man in the Church. If we take this as well as the Church’s repeated refusal to have normal relations with Israel into consideration, then we should not interpret the visit out of its context and circumstances.”

Since Shenouda’s death in 2012, there has been an increase in numbers of Egyptian Christians going on pilgrimage to occupied Jerusalem.

An estimated 5,500 Egyptian Christians went to the city during the Coptic Easter earlier this year.

Some Christians have said the Church punished them by depriving them from receiving Holy Communion for violating the ban.

Christians make up around 10 per cent of mostly Muslim Egypt, which maintains diplomatic ties with Israel.

Anti-Israel feelings have run high among ordinary Egyptians in recent years. Moreover, professional unions continue to bar their members from travelling to Israeli-occupied territory.

Egypt was the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with the Israeli regime in 1979. Jordan followed suit 15 years later.

In May last year, Lebanese Maronite patriarch Bishara Al Rahi, the head of Lebanon’s largest Christian church, also broke the taboo of visiting occupied Palestine, triggering a major controversy at home. He went to occupied Jerusalem accompanying Catholic Pope Francis on a trip to the Holy Land. It was the first visit by a Maronite patriarch to the Holy Land since 1948, when the Israeli regime was established in Palestine. Rai said that his journey was in celebration of the roots of Christianity in the region. His visit included occupied Jerusalem as well as cities inside the Green Line, including Jaffa, Nazareth and Haifa.

Lebanon is technically at war with Israel and its citizens are banned from visiting territory claimed by the regime.