JERUSALEM – After the death of their spiritual leader, more than 2,000 Egyptian Copts have poured into the Holy Land for the Easter holidays, defying a ban he imposed on visiting Jerusalem and other Israeli-controlled areas.
The influx — after decades when Egyptian pilgrims were a rarity — adds a new element to the already diverse mix of languages and faiths in Jerusalem's Old City during the holy season. The pilgrims are clearly distinguished by the Egyptian accent of their Arabic and long cotton robes worn by many of the men.
"It's the most beautiful thing in the world to see light of the Messiah. We have dreamed of this for a long time," said Halim Farag, 60, in the plaza outside the cavernous Church of the Holy Sepulcher, built on the site where Christians believe Jesus was crucified and resurrected.
Farag, his sister and his wife paid $860 each for their five-day trip — money they scraped together over a year of saving and borrowing. They will stay for Coptic Easter, which is Sunday, following the Orthodox calendar used by some Eastern churches.
For many Copts, visiting the Holy Land, and Jerusalem in particular, is one of the most meaningful acts of faith they can perform. Some liken it to the pilgrimage to Mecca that Muslims are obligated to make at least once in their lives if they can.
But for the past three decades, very few Copts have made the journey because of the ban by Pope Shenouda III. Shenouda imposed the ban to protest Egypt's 1979 peace agreement with Israel, saying Christians shouldn't visit Israel until it makes peace with the Palestinians. Shenouda was also upset over a custody dispute with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church over a rooftop monastery at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. That dispute remains unresolved.
Small groups of Copts have always defied the ban. But following Shenouda's death in late March at the age of 88, there has been a clear spike. The ban remains in place, but the visitors said they believed this was their chance.
"There is nothing more beautiful than to visit the holy sites. This is a pilgrimage that shouldn't tied to politics," said a 62-year-old pilgrim who would only identify herself by her first name, Samia, because she was worried about punishment from the Church.
Another woman said the pilgrimage is "a dream for all of us" but admitted she was concerned over the repercussions, both from the Coptic Church and the Egyptian public, who largely reject any normalization of ties with Israel.
"You don't know what they will do to us when we come back — especially after they see what numbers we came in," said the woman, wearing a knee-length black skirt and black shirt.
The Copts, mostly middle-aged or senior citizens, have been busy milling around the Holy Sepulcher throughout the week. They have trundled to Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, built on the site where they believe Jesus was born. They have shopped and haggled on the way, charming many Palestinians with their Egyptian accents and humor, made familiar throughout the Arab world through generations of popular Egyptian movies and soap operas.
A Palestinian tour guide who works with the Coptic community said most in the wave of pilgrims "are old, and they want to visit at least once in their life."
"They revolted against the pope's decision," said the guide, who like the woman spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid problems with the Church.
The precise number of visitors is hard to measure. A Coptic church official estimated the number of visitors from the community this year is at least double last year's, an assessment that was echoed by the tour guide.
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 to 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 hard-line 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.