Numbers of pilgrims to Jerusalem increases in 2015, despite Coptic Church stance

Marina Barsoum , Wednesday 8 Apr 2015

Pilgrims heading to Jerusalem from Cairo during Holy Week increased during 2015, sparking renewed debate on the stance of the Coptic Church in continuing to prohibit travel to occupied Palestine

christian pilgrimage
File photo: Christian worshippers carry crosses as they take part in the Eastern and Orthodox Church's Good Friday procession in the Old City of Jerusalem April 13, 2012 (Photo: Reuters)

At this time of year many Copts wish to travel to what they call the “Holy Land” — Jerusalem. However, a papal decree issued in 1979 by the late Pope Shenouda III, which prohibits all Copts travelling there, impedes them.

Still, 2015 has witnessed an increase in the numbers of Coptic pilgrims heading to Jerusalem, despite the travel ban, during Easter week, an official at EgyptAir told Ahram Online Wednesday.

“The number of flights travelling from Cairo to Tel Aviv during the period of pilgrimage, which started 2 April until 13 April, is a total of 35 flights on Air Sinai,” the official told Ahram Online.

The official said that the number of pilgrims that have already travelled to Jerusalem this year is 4,500, which is more than the total of last year.

But debate on whether to travel to Jerusalem — occupied by Israel — has caused splits among Christians. Some believe they are entitled to the “blessing” of visiting the Holy Land's monuments while others see such visits as not so important. Still others observe the papal decree prohibiting such visits.

Meanwhile, the Coptic Orthodox Church continues to refuse such visits, a clear stance highlighted yearly by the late Pope Shenouda III, and also by Pope Tawadros II, against the Israeli occupation of Palestine.    

The need for blessings

“Until when will I be waiting to get the blessing of visiting these Holy places and all the glory I have seen?” said 50-year-old housewife Manal Fahmy, a pilgrim who visited Jerusalem twice, in 2011 and in 2013.

In such pilgrimages, Christians visit all the Holy places where Jesus Christ is said to have been. Pilgrims also get to see the “Holy Light” that annually comes out of the tomb of Jesus Christ, and receive its blessings. 

During her two visits, Fahmy met hundreds of Egyptian pilgrims at this time of year in Jerusalem. 

Fahmy explained to Ahram Online the process of travelling, saying that there is “no way” one can travel on one's own — that the trip must be pre-planned by a travel agency for a group wishing to go on such a trip.

“The visas and all accommodations were provided by the travel agency; we were given the visas on a separate paper other than our passports,” highlighted Fahmy.

No travelers less than 45-years-old are allowed to travel to Israel, said Fahmy, explaining that the restriction is according to travel regulations.

Since the Camp David Accords signed between Egypt and Israel in 1978 there have been no official travel restrictions. The restrictions in place in this instance were established by the Christian Orthodox Church.

Church sanctions

Spokesperson to the Coptic Orthodox Church, Father Boules Halim, told Ahram Online that the Church’s stance on travelling to the Holy Land will always be the same.

“We totally reject all trips to Jerusalem, and we stress that we will enter the Holy Land with our Muslim brothers. It is not a political stance but rather a national one,” says Halim.

The priest also said that the church has put sanctions on Copts who disobey and travel to the Holy Land.

“The sanctions differ from one diocese to the other, and each bishop or priest that is responsible for the people under his guidance,” explained the spokesperson.

But for Fahmy, and some others like her, the situation was different. “I faced no problems when I came back. I was just asked before I travelled not to take communion during my visit,” says Fahmy.

In other cases, some Copts were prevented from participating for a certain period of time in some Coptic rituals on their return, as a disciplinary measure.

"The Orthodox Church has held the same stance for a long time now. Our thoughts towards this issue will always be the same; we will all go together to visit Palestine when it is freed," explained Halim.

Palestinians — whose territories have been under Israeli occupation since late 1940s — have been negotiating the creation of an independent state with the Israelis for over 20 years.

Refusing to visit the Holy Land

With debate ongoing between those wishing to visit Jerusalem and the Coptic Christian Church, there are two types of people who are refusing to go on the pilgrimage.

Veteran political activist and member of Egypt’s National Council for Human Rights George Ishak expresses his total refusal of visiting Palestine while it is under Israeli occupation.

“I am totally against travelling to the occupied territories, even if the reason is to visit Holy places. Egypt is full of those sacred places that one could get blessings from," says Ishak.

The human rights activist believes that travelling to the occupied territories "would not be in accordance with the patriotism that we have been calling for since decades."

The other view is that there is nothing wrong in visiting Jerusalem itself, but it is wrong to disobey the church.

Dr Onsi Sobhi, in his late 70s, told Ahram Online that in Christianity pilgrimage is not obligatory. Yet he wishes to go and visit what to him is the Holy Land.

"It is just that I respect the opinions of the leaders of my church," says Sobhi.

He also agrees with Ishak that Egypt is full places in which Jesus Christ visited when he came to Egypt, according to biblical narrative.

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