Will it be easy for Coptic Egyptians to go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem?

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The Higher Constitutional Court on Saturday issued a judicial verdict granting Egyptian Christians the right to take a one-month paid leave to go on pilgrimage to the contested Palestinian-Israeli city of Jerusalem. This ruling has raised many questions surrounding the right of Copts to visit Jerusalem, as the Coptic Orthodox Church banned its followers from visiting the city which has been under Israeli occupation since 1967.

According to the state-run newspaper Al-Ahram, the verdict stipulated that certain articles in the Workers Law are unconstitutional as it grants paid leave for pilgrimage only to Muslims.

Naguib Gobrail, head of the Egyptian Union for Human Rights and lawyer who filed the lawsuit three years ago, told Daily News Egypt on Sunday that the aforementioned verdict is considered an unprecedented victory for the application of the law and the absence of discrimination based on religion.

“The verdict supports the rule of law and non-discrimination against Christians in Egypt; however, its application is difficult especially for those who are affiliated to the Orthodox church as there is a ban which was imposed since the era of Pope Shenouda,” Gobrail explained.

The ban, issued in 1980 by the Holy Synod, prevents Copts from visiting Christian holy sites in the city of Jerusalem. The pope at the time issued the ban in protest of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, Gobrail explained. The decision was made by the church to boycott the normalisation of relations between Egypt and Israel.

Consequently, Gobrail added that the Coptic Orthodox Church under the leadership of Pope Tawadros II will not abide to the Higher Constitutional Court’s verdict and will continue to ban its followers from visiting the city until it is liberated.

However, Gobrail asserted that other Christians from different sects will be able to visit the city and travel if they secure permission from Israeli authorities.

“Other sects from the Catholic Church and Evangelicals will be able to freely visit the city without any restrictions from the church; therefore, they will also benefit from the verdict and get a month paid leave,” he noted.

Meanwhile, Coptic journalist and activist Nader Shokry explained that the verdict only deals with the right to paid leave for pilgrimage, as people are allowed to travel freely. He added that the church does not physically prevent its members from defying the ban.

“The Coptic Church does not forcibly prevent Coptic citizens from travelling to Jerusalem, instead its ban is considered as a ‘tradition’ that morally all Coptic citizens should follow,” Shokry noted.

Regarding whether or not Copts have made the trip in defiance to the ban, Shokry noted that some Coptic citizens do not abide by the ban, saying that many Copts went on pilgrimage to Christian holy sites in Jerusalem without facing any restrictions from the church or the state.

Probable security restrictions

Shokry stressed that many Coptic Egyptians travelled to Jerusalem through numerous travel agencies to go on pilgrimage to various holy sites in Jerusalem without facing any security annoyances or comments on having passports stamped by Israeli authorities.

“The Coptic citizens who left for the pilgrimage targeting Jerusalem were getting entrance permits from Israel,” Shokry said. “All officers inside Egypt’s airports are aware that those Coptic citizens are on their way for pilgrimage and not for a different purpose, so there is no existence of security concerns regarding their travel to Israel.”

Similarly, member of parliament and security expert Hamdy Bekhit supports the right for any Egyptian to travel to any place they want. Bekhit said there are no security concerns regarding Copts travelling to Jerusalem and getting entrance permits from Israel.

“There are no security concerns on the Egyptian side regarding their pilgrimage to Jerusalem, as security both in Egypt and Israel vet travellers,” he concluded.

In November 2015, Pope Tawadros II, head of the Coptic Church, headed to Jerusalem to attend the funeral of Coptic Orthodox metropolitan archbishop Abraham of Jerusalem and the Near East.

The visit was the first of its kind since 1967 and marked a historic moment, given that the church’s official position is to stand against normalising relations with Israel.

The Egyptian church denied media concerns that the visit is motivated by anything other than the offering of condolences. Such trips have been banned by the church since 1979 as a form of contestation of the Egyptian-Israeli peace accords.

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