I came to Jerusalem to honour memory of a mentor, not to visit: Egypt's Pope Tawadros II

Marina Barsoum , Friday 27 Nov 2015

Pope Tawadros's trip to Jerusalem stirred controversy in Egypt, with some arguing the Pontiff of violating a Coptic Church ban on pilgrimages to occupied Jerusalem and others saying the pope was only fulfilling personal duty

File Photo: Egypt's Coptic Pope Tawadros II (Reuters)

Egypt's Pope Tawadros II said his visit to Jerusalem came out of a personal duty and as a responsibility of the church to honour the late Metropolitan Archbishop Abraham of the Coptic diocese in Jerusalem, and was not a pre-planned visit.

Tawadros II made a brief televised statement on the Christian channel ME-SAT from the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories emphasising that the intent of his trip is to lead the funeral prayers for Archbishop Abraham of Jerusalem and the near east.  

"It is the duty of the church to take part in the funeral prayers for a man who has served with great wisdom and has gained the respect of all people around him even in the Jewish community," Tawadros II said.

The Pope's trip to Jerusalem stirred controversy in Egypt, with some accusing the Pontiff of violating a Coptic Church ban on pilgrimages to occupied Jerusalem.

The late Pope Shenouda III, who died in March 2012, had issued in 1979  a papal ban on pilgrimages to an occupied Palestine, a church policy that remains in place today.

The visit "contradicts" traditions 

Tawadros II's sudden visit to the occupied territories stirred accusations from some in Egypt that the pope's actions contradict his own assertions that he would abide by Pope Shenouda III's stance on the issue.  

Pope Shenouda III was staunchly anti-Zionist and opposed the normalisation of relations with Israel, in the name of Arab nationalism.

Shenouda did not a visit Jerusalem during his 41 years as head of the Coptic Church.

Christian thinker Soliman Shafiq said that Tawadros II's visit "contradicts" all the traditions and decrees issued by the Egyptian Coptic Church. 

Shafiq described the Pope's decision to travel to Jerusalem as an "unfortunate" move, arguing that he could have just sent a Coptic delegation to the funeral prayers instead. 

TV anchor Mahmoud Saad also questioned on Thursday Tawadros II's visit , demanding a clear stance from the Pope on the Coptic Church's ban on visiting Israeli- occupied Palestinian land.

However, Tawadros II, who assumed his duty as head of the Coptic Church in November 2012, stressed that it would have been an act of "negligence" if he did not represent the Coptic Orthodox Church at the funeral.

"This was not a pre-planned visit. Pre-planned visits require scheduled meetings with officials, which is not the case at all. My visit was a consolation and humanitarian duty towards a important person, not only to myself, but also for the Orthodox Church," Tawadros II explained. 

Tawadros II left Cairo on Thursday for what was described as an "exceptional" visit to Jerusalem, passing through Tel Aviv on the way to the holy city.

He is expected to return to Cairo soon after the funeral ceremony on Saturday.

Metropolitan Archbishop Abraham, considered the second most important figure following the Pope in the Coptic Holy Synod, passed away on Wednesday. He headed the small Coptic diocese in Jerusalem.

It was Abraham's final will to be buried in Jerusalem following his death.

Father Boules Halim, Spokesperson for the Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church, said that Abraham's will was the reason behind Tawadros decision to travel and to take part in the funeral prayers. 

Visit ing the Prisoner not the Jailer

Other public figures argued that the Pope's trip did not violate church rules.  

Egyptian billionaire and Coptic Christian Naguib Sawiris said on his official Twitter account that the Pope's visit is "consolation duty."

"Pope Tawadros's visit is a religious duty for consolation. It is not support for the jailer [Israel] but rather solidarity with the prisoners whom are our brothers in the West Bank," the tweet read.

Sawiris was not the sole high-profile Christian figure that supports the visit. Hanna Greiss, a Coptic writer, argued that the Pope had to travel to occupied Palestine due to the importance of the late Metropolitan Archbishop Abraham.

The Coptic Orthodox Church said in a statement on Friday that the pope's visit was an "exceptional" affair in honour of the late Bishop Abraham, not a reversal of the church's ban on pilgrimages to Jerusalem.

"The stance of the Coptic Orthodox Church concerning travel to the Holy Lands will always remain the same. The pope's visit was an exception," Father Boules Halim, the spokesperson of the church, told Ahram Online.

According to Halim, Tawadros II will not make any official visits while in Jerusalem, and he will return to Cairo immediately following the funeral prayers.

The Coptic Church has placed sanctions on individuals who violated its ban in the past. 

However,there was an increase in the numbers of Coptic pilgrimages to Jerusalem during Easter week 2015, despite the church's travel ban.

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