CAIRO — The Supreme Constitutional Court issued a ruling Feb. 5 granting Christian employees a one-month paid vacation to visit Jerusalem, just as as their Muslim counterparts get time off to go on pilgrimage to Mecca. In March 1980, Pope Shenouda III of Alexandria, the 117th pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria and patriarch of the See of St. Mark Cathedral, had prohibited travel by Orthodox Christians to Jerusalem in protest of Israel’s oppressive practices against the Palestinian people.
The court ruling opened the door for controversy, with proponents saying that the order aims at achieving equality between Muslims and Christians, and opponents arguing that it aims at indirectly normalizing relations with Israel and circumventing the Israel travel ban issued by the Orthodox Church.
Naguib Gobrail, the attorney for the Orthodox Church, told Al-Monitor, “Under this ruling, the state is bound to allow Copts a one-month vacation to go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land with the aim of achieving equality with Muslim employees who are allowed a one-month vacation to make pilgrimage to Mecca. But at the same time the ruling is not binding to the Orthodox Church. The latter had issued an order to ban travel of Christians to Jerusalem after the Israelis got their hands on the Deir Es-Sultan Monastery in the Old City of Jerusalem, which belongs to the Coptic Orthodox Church, and in rejection as well of the Zionist occupation of Palestinian lands and of Israel’s practices of the most horrible crimes against the unarmed people of Palestine.”
Gobrail said whether it concerns an administrative order or a religious one, as long as “it was issued by a church,” an order is binding for all church members, as “they are spiritual orders from the pope.”
However, it has been reported that after Shenouda died in 2012 and Tawadros II became the Coptic pope, the church's travel ban was apparently not as strictly enforced, with an estimated 15,000 Copts visiting Jerusalem around the 2013 Easter season, with that number dropping to 5,500 last year.
Still, Gobrail said the Coptic Orthodox Church punishes travelers to Jerusalem by depriving them of the Eucharist for a year, pursuant to Shenouda's order. Gobrail said the travel ban from the church is not binding on tourism agencies, which consider their travel arrangement activities to be legal since they are for-profit companies. “This explains the increase of travel advertisements for Christian pilgrimage to Jerusalem,” he added.
Gobrail said precautions enforced by Egyptian security services include preventing Copts under the age of 40 from traveling to Israel. Egyptian security authorities issue a permit for those wishing to travel to Israel at least one week before arrival.
However, Gobrail said these measures are aimed at preventing Egyptian youths from marrying Israelis in order to get Israeli citizenship.
Gobrail said he is concerned that the court ruling could cause a feud with extremist Islamists who refuse to go to a Jerusalem under the Israeli flag, as they consider it a type of normalization and acceptance of a fait accompli. Radical Islamists assassinated President Anwar Sadat in 1981 after he paid a visit to Israel. Also, Tawadros has been the subject of accusations that he has tried to normalize relations with Israel.
However, Gamal Assaad, an intellectual and Coptic parliament member for three successive terms (1984-2011), told Al-Monitor, “The ruling further consolidates the state of citizenship, and Pope Shenouda’s order to ban travel to Jerusalem has nothing to do with the church or the dictates of Christianity, but is rather a political stance through which Pope Shenouda was seeking an Arabist position since he was a pragmatist. Moreover, the order was part of the political settling of scores between the pope and Sadat, after the latter had signed the Camp David treaties with Israel, which the pope rejected outright.”
Furthermore, Assaad said Tawadros had caused Shenouda's order to become mere ink on paper when Tawadros visited Jerusalem on Nov. 26, 2015, to pay his last respects to Bishop Anba Abraham, the metropolitan archbishop of the Coptic Church of Jerusalem.
The church justified the trip by saying that a patriarch should pay the last respects to an archbishop (which is not stipulated in any church law), despite the fact that an archbishop is a bishop and so is the patriarch. This showed that the Holy Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria was not abiding by the travel ban. In addition, the secretary of the Holy Synod and the bishop of the Central Cairo Churches, Bishop Rafael, joined a church delegation to attend Arbaeen rituals in Jerusalem, which took place 40 days after the death of Abraham.
Then Tawadros sent to Jerusalem a team of six archbishops to attend the inauguration of Archbishop Anba Antonius in March 2016. Moreover, the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem announced on its Facebook page a grand ceremony in Jerusalem in August to perfume the relics of St. Maurice and St. Verena, a ritual whereby flowers are put down before being placed in boxes and distributed among the Christian worshippers as a blessing.
Following the ruling, the bishops of Nag Hammadi and Deir Mawas Monastery announced that pilgrimage to Jerusalem is still banned because of Shenouda’s political stance on the Palestinian cause, but that there was no religious problem in traveling to Jerusalem under specific instructions from Tawadros.
The head of the Division for Tourism and Aviation in the Cairo Commercial Chamber, Ammary Abdel Azim, told Al-Monitor, “The impact of the Orthodox Church’s travel ban order on agencies is limited. Moreover, Israel does not grant visas for Christians from other churches such as evangelical, Catholic and Protestant churches if they are under 44 years of age.”
Abdel Azim said that the number of travel agencies organizing these trips does not exceed 25, that the average price for a trip is $850-$1,200 and that the number of tourists is at least 5,000 and does not exceed 7,000 per year. He noted that the Egyptian authorities have the right to deny travel to any individual without having to give a reason.
“The pilgrimage takes place in the last week of the fast, which starts on the morning of Palm Sunday, by boarding the plane. The pilgrims reach Ben Gurion Airport [in Tel Aviv] and make their way to East Jerusalem by land. The pilgrims then visit a number of places, including the place where Jesus Christ was crucified, the Holy Sepulcher and the Church of the Nativity [in Bethlehem]. They then swim wearing white clothes in the Jordan River where Christ was baptized. The journey ends over Easter when the pilgrims return to Cairo airport,” Abel Azim concluded.