Cairo – As expected, the visit of Grand Mufti of Egypt, Ali Gomaa, to al-Aqsa mosque in occupied Jerusalem was met with thousands of critical comments from the media and on social networking sites.
The position of Dar al-Ifta, the highest authoritative Islamic institute, headed by the Grand Mufti, is being regarded in stark comparison to that of the Coptic Orthodox Church. The late head of the church, Pope Shenouda, had always stood against Copts going on pilgrimage to or even visiting Jerusalem “except with our brothers the Muslims following its liberation,” as his famous saying goes.
The Orthodox Church’s position did not begin with Shenouda. It can be traced back to Pope Cyril VI who banned the travel of Copts to Jerusalem in 1968, one year after its occupation.
This stance was consistent with his well-known and strong relationship with former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser.
When Anwar Sadat, Nasser’s successor, visited Jerusalem, Shenouda refused to accompany him, creating a rift between the two men.
Ultimately, this led to the Pope’s exile to Wadi Natrun in Egypt’s western desert in 1981. Sadat was assassinated less than one month later.
Shenouda paid a price, namely sacrificing his relationship with the head of state, for refusing to normalize with Israel.
But those who insisted on visiting Jerusalem and going on a pilgrimage to holy places there, against the instructions of the church, have, in their opinion, paid a higher price.
Pope Shenouda was unwavering on the issue. He excommunicated all those who disobeyed the papal order and banned them from performing the sacraments.
The punishment still applies today to all those who visit the occupied lands, even since Shenouda’s death.
“All those who visited Jerusalem in the recent delegations will be subject [to the decision],” Anba Morcos, the Orthodox church’s official spokesperson, told Al-Akhbar.
He was referring to the visit of hundreds of Copts to Jerusalem this Easter. The visit received ample media attention, in anticipation that the church would change its position after the death of Shenouda.
Morcos revealed that the excommunication period will be decided based on the opinion of the regional bishops where those involved live.
“Pope Shenouda used to impose a one-year excommunication in these cases, with some exceptions such as for the elderly who long to see Jerusalem before they die,” he said.
The spokesperson also stressed that Mufti Gomaa’s visit to Jerusalem will not change his church’s position.
“Jerusalem has not been liberated yet, and Mufti Gomaa’s position faces extensive criticism,” Morcos says.
The Anglican Church takes a similar position on the issue, as “the Mufti does not represent all Muslims,” according to the head of the church, Reverend Ikram Lamai. The Anglican Church does, however, allow its congregation to visit occupied Jerusalem.
“Although the church has been against such visits since the 1970s, it does not punish offenders and allows them the freedom to agree or disagree with its opinion,” Lamai says.
The Catholic Church – the smallest Christian denomination in Egypt – stands alone on the issue. It has never announced any position against visiting Jerusalem.
This has been interpreted by most Egyptian Catholics as implicit support for pilgrimages.
Speaking on the issue, the spokesperson of the Catholic Church said to the media that his church “does not oppose visits to religious sites in Jerusalem.”
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.