Egypt’s Coptic Church head Pope Tawadros II canceled a meeting with US Vice President Mike Pence in Cairo set for later this month in protest at Washington’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the church said Saturday.
US President Donald Trump’s decision “did not take into account the feelings of millions of Arab people,” the church said in a statement, adding it decided not to receive Pence when he visits Egypt.
“The Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church declines to receive American Vice President Mike Pence,” it said, adding it would pray for “wisdom and to address all issues that impact peace for the people of the Middle East.”
Egyptian Coptic Christians make up about 10 percent of the country’s 93 million people, and are the largest religious minority in the region.
The Coptic pope’s decision came a day after Egypt’s top Muslim cleric Ahmed al-Tayeb, the head of Al-Azhar, also declined to meet Pence and hours after the office of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said the Palestinian leader will not meet with Pence when he visits the West Bank this month.
Abbas’s diplomatic adviser, Majdi Khaldi, said Saturday that the Palestinian president won’t meet Pence “because the US has crossed red lines” on Jerusalem.
In a much-anticipated speech from the White House last week, Trump defied worldwide warnings and insisted that after repeated failures to achieve peace a new approach was long overdue, describing his decision to recognize Jerusalem as the seat of Israel’s government as merely based on reality.
The move was hailed by Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and by leaders across much of the Israeli political spectrum. Trump stressed that he was not specifying the boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in the city, and called for no change in the status quo at the city’s holy sites.
But the decision was not well received elsewhere and sparked a wave of protests across the Muslim world and in the West Bank and Gaza.
The Palestinians reacted furiously, with Abbas calling Trump’s decision “reprehensible” and a “deliberate undermining of all peace efforts,” while warning that the move ended Washington’s historic role as the key sponsor for Israel-Palestinian peace talks.
Abbas had flown to Jordan on Thursday to meet with King Abdullah II in Amman to coordinate a response to Trump’s move.
The snub of Pence on Saturday signaled a sharp deterioration in relations.
The White House had warned on Thursday that canceling the meeting planned for later this month in the West Bank would be “counterproductive,” but Abbas has been under heavy domestic pressure to shun Pence who is due to visit the region December 17-19.
Jibril Rajoub, a senior member of Abbas’s Fatah party, told AFP the same day that Pence was “not welcome in Palestine.”
Demonstrations continued Saturday as Palestinians called for a further “Day of Rage” to protest Trump’s decision.
Two Israeli security personnel were lightly injured in clashes with Palestinian protesters in East Jerusalem on Saturday afternoon, and at least six Palestinian rock-throwers were arrested, according to the Hebrew media.
The IDF said hundreds of Palestinians were taking part in West Bank protests at 20 locations on Saturday.
In Gaza, where four people have been killed since Friday — two Hamas gunmen killed in an airstrike on one of the terror group’s camps, and two who were shot during Friday’s protests — hundreds of Palestinians were protesting near the border fence with Israel and at the funerals for the dead. Hamas, which seeks to destroy Israel, has urged an escalated intifada to liberate Jerusalem.
Friday saw some 5,000 Palestinian protesters demonstrating and clashing with Israeli security forces at almost 30 locations across the West Bank and Gaza Strip after midday prayers.
In Jerusalem, hundreds of Palestinian rallied after Friday prayers near the Al-Aqsa Mosque, a flashpoint site in the holy city which, along with the Dome of the Rock, sits on the Temple Mount. The holiest place in Judaism, the mount is known to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif. PLO and Turkish flags were raised during Friday prayers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque.
Most of the thousands of worshipers dispersed peacefully after Friday prayers in the Old City. But hundreds of demonstrators burned Israeli flags while others chanted, “The war is approaching, Al-Quds Arabiya,” using the Arabic name for Jerusalem and declaring it an “Arab” city. Protesters also chanted, “Let us die as martyrs — there is no place for the State of Israel.”
Gaza-based terror groups also fired rockets at Israel on Friday, with one landing in the southern town of Sderot; Israel responded with air strikes on Hamas targets. On Saturday, the Hamas-run health ministry said two Hamas gunmen were killed in one of the strikes on a Hamas facility in Nusseirat in the central Gaza Strip.
The rocket on Sderot caused minor damage and no injuries.