Egyptian Christians on the path to the Holy Sepulchre

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Eastern Orthodox followers mark Palm Sunday on April 1st and mark Easter on April 8th.  Christians believe that Easter marks the day when the miracle of Jesus Christ’s resurrection occurred.  However only a few Egyptian Christians have visited the holy land in Jerusalem due to a ban that was enforced in 1980 by the late Pope Shenouda III in protest against the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land.

According to Sonia Farid from Al Arabia the ban dates back to his predecessor Pope Cyril VI, who initiated the ban in the wake of the 1967 defeat, in which Israel occupied Jerusalem. Throughout that time, a few Copts have defied the ban and many of them have asked for forgiveness following their return, some through public apologies in official newspapers.

However, Pope Shenouda III died in March 2012 and his successor Pope Tawadros made a trip to Jerusalem in November 2015 to attend the funeral of late Archbishop Abraham, as the head of a delegation of bishops and church officials. This trip might have encouraged more Egyptian Christians to act upon their religious aspirations.  According to Religion News Service “the number of Egyptian tourists to Israel nearly doubled from 4,428 to 7,450 between 2014 and 2016,” said Sabin Haddad, a spokeswoman for Israel’s Population and Immigration Authority.

Another motivation, that could lead to a further increase in numbers of pilgrims, is the Egyptian judiciary’s historical sentence rendered by the Egyptian Constitutional Court in February 2017 ruling that Christian civil servants have the right to a paid month leave to perform pilgrimage (once) in their lifetime like their Muslim counterparts.  A verdict that was based on the unconstitutionality of article 71 of Law 47/1978 in the Civil Servants Law that allows Muslim employees a paid leave to perform pilgrimage, since Christians are not given the same privilege to visit their holy sites in Jerusalem. The court ruled this article, which regulates the work of civil servants and grants Muslims the right to take a one-off paid vacation to perform a pilgrimage to Mecca, violates several articles of the 2014 constitution. “The ruling is a major step towards full citizenship rights for Egyptian Christians,” said lawyer Naguib Gabriel as reported by Al-Ahram.

Merchant Refaat El-Sayeh, a Coptic Christian, wanted to see the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and visit the Church of the Nativity in nearby Bethlehem, but mostly, he wanted to feel closer to God.  For years, the pilgrimages for Egypt’s Coptic Christians, like El-Sayeh, were discouraged.  “To visit Jerusalem and the holy places was always my wish,” El-Sayeh said. “You feel the hand of God. This is the lifelong dream of every Christian in Al-Kosheh.”  Now, it is a dream increasingly being realised. Last year, El-Sayeh and 25 others from this town, 300 miles south of Cairo, made an Easter pilgrimage to Jerusalem, part of a growing number of Egypt’s Coptic Christians doing the same, RNA reported.

Perry Chiaramonte, a Fox News reporter, believes that the Egyptian government’s executive authority has also contributed to the recent uptick in Coptic pilgrimages to Jerusalem.  He says: “president El-Sisi has enacted laws to normalise construction of church buildings, a long-standing issue of contention with the Muslim majority, and has made repeated outreach efforts to the community,” as published by Fox.

There is a Coptic tattoo shop in Jerusalem called  Razzouk Tattoo were Christian tourists from around the world seek tattoos as lasting memories of their pilgrimage to the Holy City.  Razzok tattoo claims to be the only remaining traditional pilgrimage tattoo business in the world. Seven hundred years ago, according to family lore, the Razzouks began tattooing fellow Coptic Christians in Egypt. They continued the practice after moving to Jerusalem around 500 hundred years ago, eventually offering their services to Christians of all denominations, according to Times of Israel.

Some critics could raise questions about how this recent increase of number of pilgrims from Egypt could affect the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations; for those concerned Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas says: “Do not leave us alone. Going to Jerusalem is not going to Israel and supporting Israel. It is supporting Palestinians,” as reported by Al-Ahram.

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