Coptic Pope Tawadros II arrived in Jerusalem on Thursday, along with a delegation of eight senior figures from the Coptic Church.
The pope travelled to Jerusalem to attend the funeral of Father Ibrahim, the Bishop of Jerusalem, who passed away on Wednesday.
The news marks the first visit by a Coptic pope for decades — according to state-run newspaper Al-Ahram, since 1967.
In 1979, late Pope Shenouda III banned Copts from attending pilgrimages to Jerusalem until the end of Israel’s occupation of the city. Shenouda passed away in 2012 after leading the church for forty years and was succeeded by the current pope, Tawadros II.
Church spokesperson Buwas Haleem said that the pope would only be visiting for the funeral, and this does not represent a shift in the church’s position vis-a-vis Israel, state-run newspaper Al-Ahram reported.
Coptic Christians should still not travel to Jerusalem until they can do so freely alongside Muslims, Haleem added.
Ishak Ibrahim, freedom of belief officer at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), meanwhile told Mada Masr, “Pope Shenouda’s decision needed to be revisited many years ago because it violates the rights of individuals to travel and visit holy places.”
Part of the problem with the decision is that it gives the church a political role, Ibrahim argued, adding that the church should be a strictly apolitical entity.
Ibrahim, speaking via email, stated that if Tawadros II has the right to visit Jerusalem as an individual, he should grant Coptic Egyptians the same right, too.
“The decision whether or not individuals can visit Jerusalem must come from his authority. It’s especially important because the majority of his practices concerning Israel have been racist,” Ibrahim claimed.
The pope’s decision to visit Jerusalem has meanwhile caused outrage among some members of the Coptic community.
Michael Raghab Nasser told privately owned newspaper Al-Watan that, “After this, nobody can say that it’s forbidden to go to Jerusalem. It can’t be okay for some people and forbidden for others.”
Another member of the Coptic community, Girgis Zakareya, on the other hand told the newspaper, “Everyone supports the Pope’s decision to travel as the head of a the delegation attending Bishop Ibrahim’s funeral. The decision is very much justified so that the Pope can pay respects to Bishop Ibrahim at his funeral.”
Despite the fact that the ban on Coptic Christians visiting Jerusalem is still in place, there have been several reports over the years that thousands still make the journey during important religious holidays, like Easter, each year.