CAIRO – Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood on Thursday denounced a rare visit to Jerusalem by the nation's top Islamic theologian that broke with decades of opposition to traveling to areas under Israeli control.
Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa replied that his two-hour visit on Wednesday was a show of solidarity with the Palestinians' claim to Israeli-held east Jerusalem.
The short trip countered a long-standing unofficial view that there should be no contacts with Israel until an Arab-Israeli peace settlement is reached. Egypt and Israel signed a peace treaty in 1979, but most Egyptians view the Jewish state as their top enemy.
The boycott is not state-sanctioned, but it has been endorsed by a wide range of Muslims, including the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, more radical groups and institutes whose heads are appointed by the state.
The travel ban also has the backing of professional unions, universities and private associations. In the past, some who have defied the ban have been ostracized.
On Thursday, Gomaa responded that he went to Jerusalem in a personal capacity. He said the trip was a "surprise" organized by Jordan. He insisted he did not get an Israeli visa to enter the city, and he did not deal with Israeli authorities.
Gomaa said the visit "was to support Jerusalemites and the Palestinian people and the Al-Aqsa Mosque and to learn about the great suffering they go through." His comments were carried by the Egyptian news agency MENA.
Gomaa was summoned Thursday by a body of senior clerics at Cairo's Al-Azhar, the Sunni Muslim world's most prestigious learning institute, to explain why he violated the boycott.
The clerics repeated their rejection of visits to Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa while under Israel's control but stopped short of reprimanding the mufti, who prayed at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam's third-holiest site.
Osama Yassin, a senior official of the Brotherhood's political arm, said Gomaa must be held to account for his visit to Jerusalem.
"What he did cannot be justified and cannot be endorsed," Yassin said in comments posted on the Brotherhood's website. He did not elaborate.
Israeli officials declined to comment.
The Muslim Brotherhood has emerged as the most powerful political group after the fall of Hosni Mubarak's regime last year, dominating the new parliament. The Brotherhood hopes to replace the leadership of Al-Azhar and other mainstream religious institutes to oust officials appointed by Mubarak.
The fallout over Gomaa's visit exposed a debate among Egyptians over the boycott of Israeli-controlled Palestinian areas, particularly Jerusalem, with its significance to Muslims and Christians.
The Palestinians have called on Muslims to visit the holy city and reinforce their claim to the eastern part of Jerusalem as the capital of a future state. Muslim clerics counter that such visits would endorse Israel's control of the city.
The ban, which followed Egypt's peace deal with Israel in 1979, was supported by the Christian Coptic Church in the past. After the death of Coptic Pope Shenouda III last month, there was a notable spike in the number of Egyptian Christians traveling to Jerusalem for Easter.
Gomaa was appointed by to his post in 2003 by Mubarak. Gomaa heads Dar al-Ifta, which advises Muslims on spiritual and life issues ranging from marriage rituals to commercial dealings.
Israelis have watched with concern the rise of Islamists in Egypt after Mubarak's ouster a year ago. Islamists now dominate the first post-Mubarak parliament, and several are running for president in elections due next month.