Despite a decades-old ban by the Egyptian Coptic Church, Christians from that denomination have been flocking to Jerusalem over the past few years, especially in the period surrounding Easter.
Some 5,500 Coptic Christians have made their way to Israel for the pilgrimage this year, according to Gulf Times. That figure is a significant drop from two years ago, when it was estimated that 15,000 Copts arrived for Easter season.
“It was a joy unmatched by any other thing in this life to go to the Holy Land and visit the places blessed by Jesus Christ,” Nadi Salib, a Coptic Christian from Egypt, told the Gulf Times on Thursday.
Salib was punished by the Church upon his return for violating the ban but he said it was worth it.
“This penalty was harsh to me. But making the pilgrimage to the Holy Land is far greater than any punishment. It’s a journey made for obtaining the Lord’s contentment and blessings,” he said.
Egyptian Copts were forbidden from visiting Israel by their late Pope Shenouda III, who put the prohibition in place to protest Israel’s annexation of Jerusalem. Shenouda passed away in March 2012 at the age of 88 after leading the ancient church for 40 years.
Later that year, the church selected Pope Tawadros II as the new pope. According to the Egyptian news site Ahram Online, Tawadros also opposes the visits, but has refrained from enforcing the ban and thus paved the way for the thousands of pilgrims. Punishments of those who visit are said to not be commonplace.
“The Church’s stance on visiting Jerusalem is has not changed,” Bishop Boulice Halim, the spokesman for the church, told the Gulf Times. “Copts will only enter Jerusalem with their Muslim brethren. There are penalties for the violators, including deprivation from Holy Communion and other spiritual rituals.”
Two years ago, a mini-diplomatic crisis between Israel and Egypt erupted after it emerged that Israeli police beat, choked and handcuffed an 85-year-old Coptic priest during a widely reported altercation in the Old City, which also involved several Egyptian diplomatic officials.
The incident occurred on Saturday, May 4, 2013 the day before the Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church’s observance of Easter that year. The head of the Coptic church in Ramallah, Father Arsanios, who lives in Jerusalem, was leading a group of visiting dignitaries to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City when he found himself being subdued by a group of policemen stationed to manage the holiday crowds.
According to his account in Maariv, despite advance coordination, due to the “very large crowd of believers” the police asked the Egyptian worshipers to enter the church by the side entrance. They then relented and agreed to let a small group from the party enter the church by the main plaza.
As that group tried to enter, Arsanios said, they were suddenly accosted by the police, who “threw one priest on the stairs and one of the officers stomped on him like a dog.”
“We didn’t do anything,” he added. “They pulled at me, beat me all over and when I was on the ground, put handcuffs on me.”
A six-minute video showing the altercation begins with Arsanios already in a physical struggle with the police, after which an officer puts him into a choke hold from behind and throws him to the ground as a crowd of police, residents and tourists look on. Arsanios briefly lost consciousness during the alternation, was treated at a Jerusalem hospital and was subsequently released without serious injury.
Mostafa Al-Qouni, the second-highest-ranking Egyptian at the embassy in Tel Aviv, was also removed by police while attempting to attend the holiday Mass.
Immediately after the incident, then deputy foreign minister Ze’ev Elkin convened a meeting with Egyptian Ambassador Atef Salem and senior police officials, at which an official apology was given in an effort to avoid a diplomatic incident. Police said the altercation resulted from a misunderstanding and that such cases were very rare.