Defying ban, Egyptian Christians visit Jerusalem

By Diaa Hadid

Associated Press

Published: Friday, April 13 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

In a photo taken Tuesday, April 10, 2012, Egyptian tourists visit the Old City of Jaffa, Israel. Thousands of defiant Egyptian Christian pilgrims are violating their church's ban against entering Israel to visit religious sites in Jerusalem and other areas controlled by the Jewish state, risking punishment by church officials and potentially, a backlash against the community.

Dan Balilty, Associated Press

JERUSALEM — After the death of their spiritual leader, more than 2,000 Egyptian Copts have poured into the Holy Land for the Easter holidays, defying a ban he imposed on visiting Jerusalem and other Israeli-controlled areas.

The influx — after decades when Egyptian pilgrims were a rarity — adds a new element to the already diverse mix of languages and faiths in Jerusalem's Old City during the holy season. The pilgrims are clearly distinguished by the Egyptian accent of their Arabic and long cotton robes worn by many of the men.

"It's the most beautiful thing in the world to see light of the Messiah. We have dreamed of this for a long time," said Halim Farag, 60, in the plaza outside the cavernous Church of the Holy Sepulcher, built on the site where Christians believe Jesus was crucified and resurrected.

Farag, his sister and his wife paid $860 each for their five-day trip — money they scraped over a year of saving and borrowing. They will stay for Coptic Easter, which is Sunday, following the Orthodox calendar used by some Eastern churches.

For many Copts, visiting the Holy Land, and Jerusalem in particular, is one of the most meaningful acts of faith they can perform. Some liken it to the pilgrimage to Mecca that Muslims are obligated to make at least once in their lives if they can.

But for the past three decades, very few Copts have made the journey because of the ban by Pope Shenouda III. Shenouda imposed the ban to protest Egypt's 1979 peace agreement with Israel, saying Christians shouldn't visit Israel until it makes peace with the Palestinians. Shenouda was also upset over a custody dispute with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church over a rooftop monastery at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. That dispute remains unresolved.

Small groups of Copts have always defied the ban. But following Shenouda's death in late March at the age of 88, there has been a clear spike. The ban remains in place, but the visitors said they believed this was their chance.

"There is nothing more beautiful than to visit the holy sites. This is a pilgrimage this shouldn't tied to politics," said a 62-year-old pilgrim who would only identify herself by her first name, Samia, because she was worried about punishment from the Church.

Another woman said the pilgrimage is "a dream for all of us" but admitted she was concerned over the repercussions, both from the Coptic Church and the Egyptian public, who largely reject any normalization of ties with Israel.

"You don't know what they will do to us when we come back — especially after they see what numbers we came in," said the woman, wearing a knee-length black skirt and black shirt.

The Copts, mostly middle-aged or senior citizens, have been busy milling around the Holy Sepulcher throughout the week. They have trundled to Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, built on the site where they believe Jesus was born. They have shopped and haggled on the way, charming many Palestinians with their Egyptian accents and humor, made familiar throughout the Arab world through generations of popular Egyptian movies and soap operas.

A Palestinian tour guide who works with the Coptic community said most in the wave of pilgrims "are old, and they want to visit at least once in their life."

"They revolted against the pope's decision," said the guide, who like the woman spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid problems with the Church.

The precise number of visitors is hard to measure. A Coptic church official estimated the number of visitors from the community this year is at least double last year's, an assessment that was echoed by the tour guide.

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