Defying ban, Egyptian Christians visit Jerusalem

By Diaa Hadid

Associated Press

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

In an indication of the strong growth, an Egyptian airport official said about 650 Copts have flown to Israel this holiday season, compared with 150 in past years. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of Egyptian security rules. Many other pilgrims enter Israel through its land crossing with Egypt.

The Israeli Interior Ministry said 2,500 Egyptians entered the country during the first 10 days of April, but had no further figures or comparisons from the previous year.

April is one of the busiest tourist seasons, drawing an estimated 225,000 Christian visitors from around the world, according to the Israeli Tourism Ministry.

Israel captured east Jerusalem, home to the city's most sensitive Christian, Jewish and Muslim holy sites, in the 1967 Mideast war and its annexation of the area has never been internationally recognized. Israel also controls borders into the West Bank, where the biblical town of Bethlehem is located. Other sites, like the city of Nazareth, are in Israel proper.

The Coptic Church has not yet named a successor to Shenouda, and it remains unclear how strictly the next leader will enforce the ban.

Pilgrims face being denied the sacrament when they return home to Egypt, said Father Antonious al-Urashalimi, secretary of the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem. He said the Church would decide on an individual basis whether the impose punishments. Those not considered elderly could be banned from the sacrament for six months to a year.

The punishment is hefty for Coptic believers, who say it is equivalent to being denied union with Christ through eating the bread and drinking the wine symbolizing his body and blood.

The flow of Copts to the Holy Land could also bring a backlash back home in Egypt, where Copts make up about 10 percent of the 85 million population.

The 33-year-old peace between Israel and Egypt has never been warm. The few Egyptians who do make the journey to Israel are often viewed with suspicion back home. Already, one newspaper article in a pro-government newspaper has reported on the visits to Jerusalem in what the pilgrims felt were dark undertones.

Few expect violence against Copts in Egypt to rise because of these visits. But Copts said they feared their visit would be used as propaganda by hardline Islamists or others trying to portray them as disloyal.

"They want to show that the Copts aren't nationalists," al-Urashalimi said. "We hope God will enlighten those minds, those people who say this is the root of treason, because we are Egyptian nationalists who have sacrificed many things for our homeland."

Associated Press writer Sarah El Deeb contributed to this report from Cairo.

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