WHY WE SHOULD CONTINUE OUR HISTORICAL RELIGIOUS TRADITION OF VISITING THE HOLY LAND AT EASTER
The Coptic Church must insist that the pilgrimage to the Holy Land is a religious tradition and has got nothing to do with politics, or with who is in actual control of Jerusalem, except in the minds of its oppressors.
I am glad the Copts have started revisiting the Holy Land to make their pilgrimage to Bethlehem, Nazareth, Jerusalem and the Jordan River each Lent and to celebrate Easter there. This tradition by Egyptian Christians is old and goes back to at least the 4th century. The Coptic pilgrimage to the Holy Land has always been undertaken fervently by Copts. However, during various periods of our history we were denied this spiritual joy because of oppression by Muslim rulers or fanatic scholars who banned Copts from the Holy Land under various pretexts. Occasionally the trip to the Holy Land was made impossible by wars between competing forces of control in the Middle East or by the unruly Arab Bedouins who made the route from Egypt to the Holy Land insecure.
In recent times the Coptic Church has self-imposed a ban on visits to Israel because of the Arab-Israeli war. Faced with intense animosity to Israel by Arabs and Muslims, and the opposition to any form of normalisation with it, Coptic popes were concerned that the non-Arab Coptic Christians will be ostracised and attacked by Muslims and Arabs if they went to Israel during Lent and Easter. During Egypt’s liberal period, which ended in 1952, Copts were free to visit the Holy Land. However, since Nasser inaugurated his dictatorial rule in 1952 Copts found it extremely dangerous to continue their traditional pilgrimage. Israel had been born in 1948 after a war in which Egypt was involved. This was followed by the rise of Arab nationalism under Nasser and yet more wars with Israel. Nasser, a staunch enemy of Israel, allowed no opposition or deviation from his state’s line – during his rule no one could even think or dream of visiting the Holy Land.
Even after the Camp David Accords in 1978 and Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty in 1979, by which Egypt recognised Israel as a legitimate state and established bilateral diplomatic relations, the Coptic Church was put under tremendous pressure by Arabists and Islamists not to visit the Holy Land in Israel. Copts will be considered as traitors of the Palestinian cause if they travelled to Israel. Realising this, and submitting to political expediency, and keen to protect the Copts from reprisals by these elements, H.H. Pope Shenouda III issued an ecclesiastical edict in 1979 prohibiting Copts from visiting Israel for pilgrimage under the penalty of excommunication.
We fully understand the reasons which led to the decision taken by our much beloved and saintly Pope Shenouda III. However, we believe that was a wrong decision: the purely religious, non-political nature of visits to the Holy Land should instead have been emphasised and the whole matter left to individual Copts’ own free will. Nay, the religious freedom of the Copts to visit Christ’s land, as it is the Muslims’ right to visit Mecca, should have been stressed and defended. It is hard to be convinced that one commits a mortal sin in front of the Almighty God, deserving of excommunication, by “visit[ing] the sites in which our Lord the Christ accepted suffering in His body, and see[ing] the place of His Resurrection, and get[ing] blessed by these divine antiquities,” as the 13th century Coptic scholar al-Safi ibn al-‘Assal says.[i]
Defending the Copts’ right to undertake their religious pilgrimage to the Holy Land, we strongly support it. Why should Copts continue to visit the Holy Land? And why is it right to do so? We answer in the following three points:
- Egypt is not at war anymore with Israel. There is a peace agreement between the two countries that has ended the former state of animosity between Egypt and Israel. Not only Egypt but even the Palestinian National Authority, and several other Arab entities, have recognised the State of Israel and established political, diplomatic, intelligence and trade relations with it. Even Hamas is considering recognising Israel as legitimate state and accepting the two-state solution. There is no Egyptian law that bans visits to Israel. Visits by Copts to the Holy Land can hardly be regarded as treason or crime.
- The Coptic tradition of visiting the Holy Land is purely religious and has got nothing to do with politics. The Holy Land has changed hands several times since that tradition started in the 4th century. The Byzantines, Persians, Muslims (from various dynasties and ethnicities), Crusaders, British and Jews have all come at some stage to rule Jerusalem. At no period did the Copts consider their visit to the Holy Land to possess any political significance. They did not visit Jerusalem only when it was held by Christians but continued to do so at times when it was seized by Zoroastrian Persians and Muslim ethnicities. We do not see any reason why now Copts should stop visiting Jerusalem just because it is under its Jewish holders. In summary, the Copts’ pilgrimage to the Holy Land has never meant either a political support or lack of it to those who control it.
- Threatening Copts not to visit the Holy Land is tyrannical and must be resisted. The truth of the matter is that the pressures put on the Copts in order not to visit the Holy Land is an extension of the oppression by Arabists and Islamists to which the Copts have been exposed for a considerable length of time – and it is a pressure backed by threats and terror messages. If we don’t stop this tradition, and go to Israel to complete our religious experience, we have heard several times, we shall be attacked and even get eliminated. This is truly not about normalisation with Israel – it is about oppressing the Copts and restricting their religious liberty by the Muslim majority.
The Coptic pilgrimage to the Holy Land – a religious tradition – has been made political, and seen as normalisation with Israel, only by these Arabists and Islamists: a sign not only of oppression but a pretext for yet more oppression of the Coptic religious minority. We must resist that. The Coptic Church must insist that the pilgrimage to the Holy Land is a religious tradition and has got nothing to do with politics, or with who is in actual control of Jerusalem, except in the minds of its oppressors. Prohibiting Copts to go to the Holy Land on the footsteps of Christ, the Virgin Mary and the disciples the Church, in sympathy with the Palestinians (I know not who exactly since the Palestinian National Authority has recognised Israel), is simply falling into the trap of politicising this great religious tradition of ours by ourselves – and by this, we only assist our oppressors to oppress us even more and take the rest of our religious liberties away.
[i] Al-Majmo’a Al-Safawi by al-Safi Abu al-Fadail ibn al-‘Assal; Vol. 1; p. 196.