A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, April 20, 2012

Coptic Pilgrims', Egyptian Mufti's Jerusalem Visits Stir Up a Hornet's Nest

Thirty-five years ago, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat flew to Jerusalem and spoke to the Israeli Knesset. After the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, regular flights between the two countries were inaugurated. I believe it was in 1983 that I first took an El Al flight from Cairo to Ben Gurion Airport.

Israeli tourists regularly go to Egypt; few Egyptians reciprocate. There are government delegations, businessmen who travel regularly, and so on, but few private Egyptians visit; it's still stigmatized. Though Jerusalem is holy to both Christians and Muslims, neither group has traditionally made pilgrimages. The late Pope Shenouda III banned Copts from making pilgrimages to Jerusalem, and while some have done so (including at least one bishop a few years ago), the Church does not approve. (For the Copts there are two issues: Israeli occupation of the occupied territories, but also the fact that Israel has supported the Ethiopian Church in a controversy over access to the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, claimed by the Copts. This issue, the Deir al-Sultan, is worthy of a post in its own right, but let's leave that for another time.)

First, the Coptic taboo was challenged. With the approach of Easter, regular flights began carrying Coptic pilgrims to Jerusalem; some 2000 had gone by Easter. The Church still disapproves, but Shenouda is gone, and many Copts feel the ban is now collapsing.

Then the Mufti of Egypt went to Jerusalem and all hell broke loose. The senior Egyptian cleric paid a quick visit on Wednesday, prayed at the Al-Aqsa mosque, and was accompanied by the Mufti of Jerusalem and other religious figures as well as a Jordanian prince; the Mufti, Dr. ‘Ali Goma‘a,  explained on Twitter that it was an "unofficial" visit aimed at showing solidarity with the Palestinians and the rights of Jerusalem:

No official meetings with any Israelis have been reported (or even alleged), but there has been a huge uproar from Egyptians who consider such a high-level visit as somehow recognizing Israeli occupation of Jerusalem, despite his Jordanian host. The Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party has  denounced it as a "gross mistake" that imposes normalization with Israel on the Egyptian people.

Zeinobia rounds up much of the debate and print pictures. Meanwhile, The Arabist puzzles over what Gomaa was thinking while also feeling the ban on travel is a mistake.  Salafis in Parliament want him fired, which is the President's prerogative (that currently being interpreted as SCAF)..

I have never understood why a religious figure visiting a religious site in Jerusalem, and having no official contact with Israelis other than what is absolutely necessary, is somehow "normalization" or recognition of the occupation. But I also recognize that coming at a time when on the one hand the Coptic taboo seems to be eroding but on the other, Egyptian-Israeli relations are extremely fragile, the Mufti's "unofficial" visit was certain to create an uproar. And it has.

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