Head of the Coptic Orthodox Church Pope Tawadros II made an exceptional visit to Jerusalem last Thursday to lead the funeral prayers for Bishop Abraham, the Metropolitan Archbishop of Jerusalem and the Near East. The trip triggered a wave of controversy and divided public opinion, although state bodies and senior officials didn’t comment on the visit.
A large number of Copts supported the trip. Some were driven by their objection to the church’s earlier ban on visits to the occupied holy territories, and its decision to excommunicate those who chose to do so. This group has always wanted free access to holy places with no threat or blackmail.
Others defended church leadership and its decisions, irrespective of what they are, or what their impact is. This group has reduced Christianity to the church and the church to its religious leadership, considering any criticism — even on non-creedal matters — a criticism of Christianity itself. This group also includes those who have been promised — or seek — positions in the church. Some, after all, rely on the church to move up political and social ladders.
Other groups opposed the visit for a number of reasons. This includes those who are hostile to Israel and any visitors, not just the Pope. Others are critical of the church and its leadership, irrespective of particular decisions. There are also those who fear the consequences of such a decision. They believe that neither the timing nor the manner by which the visit was conducted was appropriate, and that this will not benefit the Coptic Church.
Bishop Kirollos VI issued a decree banning Copts from visiting Jerusalem following Egypt’s defeat in the 1967 war. In 1970, Israel handed Ethiopian monks the Sultan monastery, which Salah al-Din al-Ayubi had given the Copts in the 12th century. Pope Shenouda III made the ban compulsory. The Holy Synod (the highest authority in the Church of Alexandria) issued a decree on March 26, 1980, officially banning Copts from visiting Jerusalem.
“The Holy Synod decided to ban the congregation of the Coptic Orthodox church from traveling to Jerusalem this year, whether for the Holy Pascha or Easter, until the Sultan monastery in Jerusalem is officially returned to the church. The decree applies and is automatically renewed so long as the monastery is not returned back, or until the Synod issues a different decree.”
Over time, the church began to excommunicate anyone who visited Israel by excluding them from participation in the sacraments. It obliged those who breach the decree to give an official apology, denying them Holy Communion, which is one of the seven sacraments observed by the Coptic Church.
However, the historical and political context in which the Holy Synod issued its decree in 1980 cannot be overlooked. The political scene was tense after Former President Anwar al-Sadat’s signing of the peace treaty with Israel normalized relations between the two countries. National, partisan and popular groups rejected Sadat’s policies, considering them damaging to the Palestinian cause and against Egypt’s interests. The decision by the Holy Synod to issue such a ban on travel to Israel at the time obstructed any potential for using the Coptic Church as a tool for normalization. This meant that many Egyptians, especially Copts, were happy to abide by the decree.
So, what happened between 1980 and today that made Copts welcome the Pope’s visit to Jerusalem, contrary to the Holy Synod’s decree?
Egypt has witnessed two major political and social changes that can explain this change. The first is related to the perception of the state of Israel by government institutions and sectors of society. With the rise of terrorism, Israel is no longer the first and most important enemy of the state. The Egyptian government also has a number of economic and trade relations with the state of Israel, as well as collaboration between politicians and writers.
The second change is related to Copts themselves. Although pilgrimage for Copts does not have the same religious status as it does for Muslims, visiting monasteries and religious sites for prayer and blessings has become an integral part of Coptic practice in recent years. When the Holy Synod issued its decision in 1980, visits to places like Jerusalem were not accessible to a wide sector of the Coptic community. This inaccessibility was partly due to the inconvenience of the means of transportation at the time, and also due to the fact that church activities were not that extensive back then, and didn’t allow for the organization of pilgrimages. The nature of religious teachings today, the ease of transportation and the urbanization of monasteries has meant visits to holy sites is now a main component of church activity. There are also a number of companies that facilitate such trips.
At any rate, the ban was not always honored. During the time of Pope Shenouda III, excommunication only lasted until an official apology was made, which was published in the newspaper and put up in the Archeparchy. In the last years of Pope Shenouda’s leadership, a sector of the Coptic community started to breach the decision and visited Jerusalem regardless of excommunication.
When Pope Tawadros II came to lead the church in 2012, there was a general sentiment that he did not hold the same political views as his predecessor. The Pope found himself in a dilemma between wanting to cancel the ban on the one hand, and his unwillingness to bear the political responsibility of this decision on the other, especially in view of the constant comparisons between his policies and those of Pope Shenouda. He therefore maintained the decree formally, stressing in his statements and those made by official representatives of the church, that Copts who visit Jerusalem would be reprimanded. In practice, he left each church to manage its own congregation. Anyone who made the trip could settle the matter with an apology to the local bishop. Today, an apology to the priest or no apology at all is also acceptable.
There is no doubt that the ban on Copts visiting Jerusalem was a political decision. Likewise, the decision of Pope Tawadros II to visit Jerusalem today, whether motivated by religion or personal reasons, is equally political. There is no way such a decision was taken without the approval and support of major state institutions.
Copts have the right to visit religious sites in Jerusalem or not without being subjected to blackmail or church reprimand accusing them of treason or normalization with Israel. The media and intellectuals have to then find logical rationale to convince Copts not to go to Israel, outside the scope of the church. It is rather illogical to be against the church assuming a political role, while at the same time demand that it upholds its previous political decisions.
As for Pope Tawadros II’s decision to visit Jerusalem, I ascribe to the view shared by others that it is in fact a wrong, unwise and hasty decision, with unforeseen consequences. It has already put the church, its leadership and the Coptic community in a position of criticism.