While Jews around the world celebrate Passover, Christians from Egypt visit the Holy Land for their week of Holy Pascha (the Passion of Christ). For this pilgrimage, Egyptian Christians (Orthodox, Catholic and Evangelical) leave Cairo by the thousands on daily flights to Israel. Egypt’s airlines have increased departures to 12 flights per week from the normal four. In spite of the regularity of this annual event, rumors vilifying Israel propagate throughout the Egyptian press.
On Sunday, the Arab news website Elaph alluded to an Israeli government ploy by citing sources in Egypt’s travel industry that claimed Israeli visas issued for Easter travel were really intended for another “mass” immigration of Coptic Christians to Israel. These fears stem from earlier waves of Christian emigration.
It is doubtful that Egypt’s ruling class views as disagreeable a potential exodus of Copts. It is more likely to be encouraged, if not fostered, just as in the evacuation of Jews from Egypt during the Nasser era. Currently, focusing on such “news” creates an opportunity to criticize and condemn imaginary offenses by Jews and the Israeli government.
Meanwhile, Orthodox Copts will deal with negative consequences upon their return from Jerusalem. Church hierarchy is irritated by the pilgrimages to Israel, and stresses that these Christians are in violation of a 1978 edict issued by the late-Pope Shenouda III forbidding visits to the Holy Land until Jerusalem is “liberated.”
In a political alignment with Arab Muslims, the anti-Semitic edict disregards Christian doctrine connecting the history of today’s New Testament Church to the prophecies and promises of the Hebrew texts. The former Pope, departing from his true spiritual role to mix in politics, attached severe religious penalties for disobeying his edict, which has not yet been rescinded by the current Pope. The legacy of Pope Shenouda III is derived from his famous refusal to accompany former President Anwar Sadat on his historic visit to Jerusalem in 1977.
Whereas Pope Tawadrous II, current head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, has not reversed Pope Shenouda’s edict for the millions of Orthodox Christians living in Egypt, Egyptian Copts of the Evangelical and Catholic denominations do not face this problem. Their leaders regard travel to Israel with approval in light of the normalization process between Egypt and Israel following the 1977 Camp David peace treaty.
As Islamist groups and regimes across the Middle East slaughter Christians, the Coptic Pope has yet to issue a punitive edict against such heinous crimes, even though doing so could very well save lives. Instead, Christian forgiveness and the notion of “turning the other cheek” are applied toward the “enemies” of the Church.
In terms of the Egyptian Orthodox Holy Synod decree still maintained by Orthodox leaders, Israel is the enemy occupier of Jerusalem. If such is the vision, then logic begs the question, why not also forgive the Israeli “enemy,” retract the edict and allow Christians to visit the Holy Land in the spirit of turning the other cheek?
Dr. Ashraf Ramelah is founder and director of the Egyptian Christian movement Voice of the Copts.