Video shows police choking Coptic leader, 85, in Old City

Cops still probing incident of 10 days ago, which also involved visiting Egyptian officials and caused a mini-diplomatic crisis

Gavriel Fiske is a reporter at The Times of Israel

Police in Jerusalem beat, choked and handcuffed an 85-year-old Coptic priest during a widely reported altercation in the Old City almost two weeks ago, which also involved several Egyptian diplomatic officials, a video revealed.

The video, uploaded by the Maariv daily to YouTube, also showed previously unknown details of the altercation.

The incident occurred on Saturday, May 4, the day before the Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church’s observance of Easter. 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.”

The six-minute video 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.

Police spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld declined to comment specifically on the video, but told the Times of Israel on Tuesday that “the incident was looked into and examined to verify what took place.”

He said a follow-up meeting between Jerusalem police officials and representatives of the Coptic church was held on Monday and that the incident was still under investigation, but no decision on possible disciplinary action had been made.

Immediately after the incident, 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.

At the time Elkin said police were investigating the incident, which he called “unnecessary,” but noted that based on his knowledge of the events “it is clear that things could have been handled differently.” The Israeli Foreign Ministry released a statement calling police action “inappropriate.”

Israel’s ambassador in Cairo, Yaakov Amitai was issued a “strongly worded” complaint about the incident.

This year has seen a huge upswing in Coptic religious tourists visiting Jerusalem from Egypt, with some 15,000 arriving for the Easter season alone. 

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.

In November, 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 that have come in the past month.

Asher Zeiger contributed to this report.

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