Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church Leader Visits Israel for First Time in 35 Years

Pope Tawadros II attends Saturday funeral of local bishop in Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre, stirring opposition in Egypt.

Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II, center, surrounded by clergymen and bodyguards, arrives to the funeral of Archbishop Anba Abraham, in Jerusalem's Old City, November 28, 2015.
AFP

The head of Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church was in Jerusalem over the weekend, in the first such visit in 35 years. The trip by Pope Tawadros II, who came to take part in the funeral of a local Coptic bishop, aroused great controversy in Egypt.

Some critics argued that the visit violated the ban on pilgrimages to Israel that was imposed in 1980 by Tawadros’ predecessor, Pope Shenouda III, in the wake of the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. The church said no actions should be taken that could be interpreted as normalization of relations with Israel, as long as Jerusalem was defined as occupied territory.

Supporters of the visit say the ban was political and that Egyptian Copts should be allowed to travel anywhere in the world.

Tawadros arrived at Ben-Gurion International airport on Thursday. Associates said he came to pray for the soul of Archbishop Anba Abraham, the Coptic Orthodox Metropolitan Archbishop of Jerusalem and the Near East. Abraham’s funeral was held on Saturday at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Deputy Regional Cooperation Minister Ayoub Kara represented the state at the funeral.

Speaking to a Palestinian media outlet, Tawadros said the Coptic Church in Egypt had a duty to dispatch a delegation of church leaders to bid farewell to a senior bishop who had served the church for many years. The pope stressed that this was not an official visit and that no meetings were scheduled.

The Coptic Orthodox Church said Tawadros had declined an invitation by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to visit him in Ramallah, issued in a phone conversation during which Abbas congratulated the Coptic pope on his visit to Jerusalem. Tawadros explained that he had only come for the funeral and would not visit holy sites in Jerusalem or make an official visit to Ramallah unless accompanied by the head of Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, an important center of Sunni Islam.

Since Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi became president of Egypt in June 2014, several groups of Coptic pilgrims from the country have come to see Christian holy sites in Jerusalem, Bethlehem and the Galilee.