Coptic Christians must renew their solidarity with Palestine
The history between the Coptic Orthodox Church and Palestine is little known in the West. The 2,000-year-old church has maintained a continuous presence in Jerusalem and its churches, including the Holy Sepulchre, in which stands a chapel maintained by the Copts for use in their services.
Tradition dictates that this presence stretches back to the pilgrimage of Helena, Emperor Constantine’s mother, in the 4th century. The Razzouks, a Coptic family in Jerusalem, have tattooed pilgrims to the Holy Land since 1300 and have little plan to stop.
Coptic Christianity is forever entangled and connected with the Holy Land, a land that still counts a historic Palestinian Christian population. Palestine and Egypt are home to some of the world’s first and most ancient Christian communities. And so, the Coptic Church, in October, condemned Israeli violence against Palestinians. This is not enough, however.
"We must support the Palestinians, who find themselves every year praying in Al-Aqsa during Ramadan, only to be attacked. So, now must the Coptic Church stand up in support of its brethren in Palestine — which it has done, but it must do more."
It is paramount that all Copts voice their support for Palestine and that the Coptic Church reiterate, in no uncertain terms, its ban on pilgrimages to Jerusalem, its support for Palestine, and its ultimate hope of peace and justice.
Just like Palestinian Christians, Copts have not been strangers to oppression, and through the last century, these shared experiences have led to outspoken advocacy and solidarity between the two communities.
These injustices, not the least of which are the martyrdoms of 20 Copts and a Ghanaian man in Libya by ISIS in February 2015, have garnered attention from across the world and from Western governments, which have called for accountability and justice, not just for the Copts, but for the Middle East’s many regional Christian minorities — except Palestinian Christians.
Just as the Copts have experienced attacks, discrimination, and oppression, the often-forgotten Palestinian Christians have experienced the same discrimination and widespread displacement under the hand of the occupation, leading to a dwindling Christian presence in the Holy Land.
This is why, in the wake of the Palestinian Nakba in 1948, Copts have felt acutely for the Palestinian people, especially the Christians among them. In 1967, Pope Cyril VI banned pilgrimages to Jerusalem following the Nakba.
After the Camp David Accords, his successor, Pope Shenouda III, reaffirmed the ban stating, “I will never go to Jerusalem except hand-in-hand with my Muslim brothers after the end of the Israeli occupation.” For this, Shenouda was exiled by then-President Anwar Sadat to monastic life. To this day, Pope Shenouda III remains in the high esteem of all Egyptians, Muslim and Coptic.
In recent years, however, this emotional support has found itself on the decline. Religious pilgrimages to Jerusalem rise every year. The number of pilgrims is in the thousands, and many pilgrimage trips are church-sponsored–in Egypt and diaspora.
The current status of the ban is unclear — ever since the current Pope, Tawadros II, visited in 2015, many took the ban to be lifted de facto. In October, the Church issued a statement condemning the violence against Palestinians, but it refused to clarify its position on the pilgrimage ban.
In the West, many diasporic Copts have turned against Palestine, especially as discourse has left out the Palestinian Christian population in the Holy Land, turning the issue into a holy war between religious factions.
This is why, as one of the strongest Christian presences in the Middle East, the unequivocal renewal of the Church’s support of Palestine may shift these discursive tendencies to ones couched in a proper grammar: the vernacular of the dispossessed and the dispossessors.
Much of this waning support owes itself to Christian Zionism, a theopolitical movement advocated and led by American evangelicals, which has led the charge in the United States’ material support for Israel.
Christian Zionists look towards scripture and faith to justify their support, reifying Zionism as an almost dispensable component of the religion. For diasporic Copts, it is often difficult to extricate their history and beliefs from this movement, which has exerted a syncretic influence on almost all denominations of Christianity, including the Copts, through the evangelical movement and Christian TV.
For many, to conceive of a Christianity apart from Zionism feels almost a contradiction in terms, but we need only turn to the past to realise it is not so. Christianity, at its core, preaches that hatred tears humans away from the Divine and one another.
To do your brother wrong is to wrong God, and what has been ruined must be restored and made whole. How can we look at these words in our Scriptures and, in the same turn, support the discrimination of Copts and Palestinians in the Holy Land?
As Copts, we have always called for peace: for the world, and ourselves. Wherever we go, we demand religious freedom, in part due to our experience of discrimination.
How then can Copts witness what is happening in the Holy Land and turn their backs on their neighbours? Even in Jerusalem, Copts are not safe: in 2018, monks peacefully protesting the restoration of the Deir as-Sultan monastery were detained and tackled by Israeli police. The list of violence against Christians in the Holy Land stretches across decades.
In 1979, the Greek Orthodox monk Philoumenos Hasapis, the guardian of the Well of Jacob, was stabbed to death. His successor has also announced he will give his life to defend the well.
The currency of Christianity is life and blood, in which, according to our belief, lies the ultimate expression of love. But must all Christians be prepared to pay this heavy toll? Christians, time and time again, will meet persecution gladly, but they are no less deserving of peace.
So, we must support the Palestinians, who are regularly refused entry into holy sites on Christmas and Easter. We must support the Palestinians and the Christians among them, who find themselves attacked and spat upon in the Holy City.
That this city, this land, this “factory of religions,” as poet Tamim al-Barghouti once called it, should find itself home to such disgraceful acts of bitterness, resentment, and hatred, should be a cause of worldwide shame.
We must support the Palestinians, who find themselves every year praying in Al-Aqsa during Ramadan, only to be attacked. So, now must the Coptic Church stand up in support of its brethren in Palestine — which it has done, but it must do more.
All the same, this does not lie squarely in the hands of the Pope. It is incumbent on us as well, those of us in the diaspora, to distance ourselves from the strands of Christian Zionism that have found themselves engrained in modern Coptic churches and Coptic thought. We must abandon the influence of American evangelical media to return to advocating for our people.
In our churches, we should refuse to travel to the Holy City and Holy Land. We must march and organise in solidarity with the Palestinians, and we must call on the Church to renew the ban, so that one day, when the Copts and Palestine are free, we may enter the Holy City, hand in hand.
George Iskander is a Ph.D. candidate in physics as well as a cinephile and writer.
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