Middle East

Cairo blocks Jewish pilgrims’ annual ceremony

CAIRO: Egypt’s Foreign Ministry said Wednesday it had told Israel that it would not be “appropriate” for Israeli pilgrims to make an annual visit to the tomb of a 19th-century Jewish holy man in the Nile Delta, as activists mobilized to block the pilgrimage route.

Ceremonies at the tomb of Rabbi Yaakov Abu Hatzira have triggered yearly political sparring in Egypt throughout most of the last decade, with Islamists, nationalists, and others claiming that the government by allowing the pilgrimage is pursuing an unpopular policy of normalization with the country’s former enemy.

Egypt notified Israel two months ago that it would be “impossible to hold the annual ceremony because of the political and security situation in the country,” the official said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.

An Islamist politician involved in organizing protests against the march meanwhile said that visiting Abu Hatzira’s tomb in the village of Daymouta, 180 kilometers north of Cairo would be a “suicide mission” for Israelis, because of popular opposition to their presence in Egypt.

“Normalization [of relations] with Israel is forced on the people, and the visits too come against the will of the people and despite popular rejection,” said Gamal Heshmat of the Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s best organized political group.

Heshmat said that activists planned to stage sit-ins and other protests to block the route as soon as they hear the pilgrims are on their way. Egypt’s daily Al-Ahram newspaper reported Tuesday that 31 parties and groups had joined this year’s campaign.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish human rights organization based in Los Angeles, denounced the attempts to block the pilgrimage. In a Tuesday statement, the center’s Abraham Cooper accused the Brotherhood of trying to “curb religious freedom of Jews.”

A son to a chief rabbi of Morocco, Abu Hatzira was revered by some Jews as a mystic renowned for his piety and for performing miracles. The elderly rabbi was making his way from his native Morocco to the Holy Land in 1879 when he fell ill and died in the Egyptian city of Damanhour.

After Egypt and Israel signed a peace treaty in 1979, Jewish devotees – mostly of Moroccan origin – have traveled annually to the site. But Egypt has limited the numbers of pilgrims.

In 2001 and 2004, two court orders banned the ceremony after opponents filed legal challenges.

Since then, both Delta residents and activist groups have denounced the ceremony. The residents complain of harassment by security forces deployed to protect the pilgrims.

Activists oppose the normalization of relations with a country that Egypt fought in four wars between 1948 and 1973, and also see the defiance of the court order as part of the Mubarak regime’s general trampling of the rule of law.

In 2009, Egypt officially denied the pilgrims entry because the anniversary fell while Israel was conducting an offensive in Gaza.

A year later, the Israeli press reported that Mubarak accepted a request from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to lift the limits on the number of pilgrims.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 12, 2012, on page 8.

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