In a recent interview with Saudi Arabian journalist Faisal Abbass, Editor-in-Chief of ‘Arabnews’ during a visit to Cairo, Pope Tawadros voiced his views on a number of issues that have intrigued Coptic congregations.
Jerusalem is a sensitive issue with Copts, owing to the fact that they have not been allowed to go on pilgrimage there since June 1967. The decision was taken by Pope Shenouda III in the wake of the Six Day War with Israel, which resulted in Israel occupying Jerusalem and Sinai. In October 1973, the Egyptian army succeeded in crossing the Suez Canal into the then Israeli-occupied Sinai, a move which resulted in Egypt signing a peace treaty with Israel in 1979. Normalisation of relations between the two countries should have followed, but was never achieved on the unofficial level. Even though it became possible for Egyptians to visit Jerusalem, none went because of the popular rejection of normalisation of relations. The Coptic Holy Synod, headed by the late Pope Shenouda, thus refused to allow Copts to go to Jerusalem in droves on pilgrimage, saying: “We will only go together with all Egyptians”.
The decision, however, Pope Tawadros said, has to be regularly reassessed. “We have been asked by immigrant Copts wishing to visit Jerusalem, and who have nothing to do with normalising relations between Egypt and Israel, to allow their parents and grandparents in Egypt to accompany them to visit the sites in Holy Land. So, we allowed old people to go.”
The Pope said he thought the ban on visiting Jerusalem is not a good decision. “There are large numbers of Egyptians, Copts included, who had at some point migrated to the Holy Land and settled there. In Jerusalem, we have had a Coptic bishop, churches, monasteries, convents and schools for centuries. Meaning that there is a substantial Coptic presence in Jerusalem, and it is not served well by banning visits by Egyptians.”
The question is widely circulated of when would Pope Tawadros visit Saudi Arabia now that Prince Muhammed Bin Salman has invited him. To this the Pope replied: “No specific time has been set for the visit; I will go when the time is right.”
As to the relation between the Coptic Church and Saudi Arabia, Pope Tawadros said: “I feel that Saudi Arabia and Egypt are linked to one destiny and their long historical relationship with each other gives them a strong role in the Middle East. Anba Markos, our Coptic Metropolitan of Shubra al-Kheima, has more than once been to Saudi Arabia to visit Coptic families living there [he recently celebrated Mass in the home of a Copt in Riyadh]. I know that everything is being arranged very quietly.”
On the relation between the Coptic Church and the Catholic Church in Rome, Pope Tawadros said it was very good, characterised with “the friendship and love that binds us together, Pope Francis and myself. I visited Vatican for the first time in 2013, the first visit by a Coptic pope in 40 years, and Pope Francis visited Egypt in 2017. I was again in the Vatican last July, and went to Bari for a prayer meeting with Pope Francis and Middle East patriarchs.”
Pope Tawadros said that the date 10 May, the day that coincided with his visit to Rome in 2013 and the visit of his predecessor Pope Shenouda III to Rome in 1973, has been designated a day of brotherly love between the two Churches. “We mark the day with a phone call between Pope Francis and myself; and we hold an annual celebration once in a Catholic church in Egypt and the following year in an Orthodox church.”
Photo of Neil Armstrong
Pope Tawadros told a never known story of a letter he had sent decades ago to Neil Armstrong, the American astronaut who was first man who landed on the moon. The Pope says he loved the name ‘Neil’ because it sounds like the Arabic for ‘Nile’, a name he wishes Egyptians would use. “I was in my second year in secondary school,” he said, “and I heard on ‘Voice of America’ that anyone could write to Neil Armstrong. So I did. I sent him a letter saying that I would like a coloured photo of him on the moon; at the time most photos published were in black and white. It was July 1969, and I was pleasantly surprised to receive an envelope that included the coloured photo. It was very beautiful and I highly cherished it, but I do not know where it is now since I left everything to take orders 32 years ago.”
Pope Tawadros II concluded with a message to the whole world. “I would like to tell everyone to search for the values of ‘right, goodness and beauty’. They are the basic values for human beings who must look for truth and justice; and seek to be loving and merciful.
11 December 2018