Defying a decree issued by the late Pope Shenouda III prohibiting members of the Coptic Church from visiting Jerusalem, Egyptian Copts are for the first time flying to the Holy Land in large numbers to celebrate Easter. However, it has now been reported that some of them are being denied entry into churches upon arrival.
Copts were among the thousands of Christians gathered near the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, built at a site where Jesus was crucified and buried, for Easter Saturday. However, St. Helena Chapel at the church within the walled Old City of Jerusalem denied entry to them, Egyptian state-run news agency MENA reported.
"We neither allowed them to pray nor to break their fast," a chapel priest identified only as Mesaael was quoted as saying. "That infuriated them to the extent that some of them wanted to fight us. The priest added that Pope Shenouda's instructions were still valid and "we have to respect them even more than we did when he was alive."
The Coptic pope, who died March 17, threatened excommunication for anyone who defied the travel ban that was imposed in the late 1970s in an effort to show solidarity with Palestinians over the Israeli occupation of Jerusalem. However, after his death, Egyptian airline Air Sinai began new flight routes to Israel.
The new flight path, launched Friday, from the Cairo International Airport to Jerusalem can seat more than 100 people. Two flights are leaving for Jerusalem daily. In reaction, the Coptic Orthodox Church has stressed that the ban is still in force, according to the Al-Shorouk newspaper.
Easter Saturday is observed as a day of reflection and waiting by Christians in many eastern countries. "This day is very important for us. It's the waiting for the great celebration of the resurrection," Father Ibrahim Shomali, a Palestinian Christian priest from the town of Beit Jala, said, according to The Associated Press.
There were thousands of Christians gathered at the Holy Sepulcher, the site where Jesus was crucified and buried, for prayers Saturday. "This is the place where Jesus is in his tomb, this is the place, a magnet of the world," Jim Carnie, a Christian visitor from New York City, was quoted as saying. "The power of this place, to be here, it has to be experienced."
On Saturday afternoon, a service was also held at the ancient Church of the Nativity, built over the cave that is traditionally seen as the birthplace of Jesus, in the West Bank town of Bethlehem.
The Latin Patriarch of the Roman Catholic Church in Jerusalem will lead Easter mass at the Holy Sepulcher Sunday. Protestants will attend a morning service in the Garden Tomb outside Jerusalem's walled Old City.
While Holy Week will end with Easter celebration Sunday, it will mark the beginning of Holy Week for Eastern Orthodox churches that follow the older Julian calendar and will observe Easter a week from now.