Jerusalem - Hundreds of people turned out in Jerusalem on Saturday afternoon for the funeral of Archbishop Anba Abraham, the head of the Coptic Church in the Holy Land - but it was the presence of Egypt's Coptic pope that drew the most attention.

Pope Tawadros II arrived in Jerusalem on Thursday, breaking a decades-long boycott on visiting the city that was introduced by his predecessor, Pope Shenouda III. His attendance at the service has sparked controversy, particularly in Egypt, where the pope has faced criticism in the media for violating the ban.

Michael, a Coptic Christian who made the journey to Jerusalem from Nazareth with his grandson, said seeing Tawadros II was a special moment. "It's wonderful; all my life I didn't have this chance," he said. "It's really wonderful for the Christians of the Holy Land."

Maybe this is an exceptional visit, a special case. [Still], I think most Egyptians will wait until Jerusalem is not occupied to come here.

Yousef, Jerusalem shop-owner

But Yousef, who runs a clothing stall in the Old City souk, said he was unsure as to whether the visit would have lasting political implications.

"Maybe this is an exceptional visit, a special case," he said. "[Still], I think most Egyptians will wait until Jerusalem is not occupied to come here."


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Archbishop Abraham, who became a priest in Egypt in 1990 and was appointed as the head of the Church of the Holy Land in 1992, died on Wednesday at the age of 72. 

The funeral took place at the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate in the Old City of Jerusalem, which was annexed by Israel in 1967 in a move not recognised by the international community.

Shenouda III, who led the Coptic Church for 40 years until his death in 2012, issued a ban in 1979 after the Camp David peace accords between Egypt and Israel were signed. He never visited Jerusalem and was staunchly opposed to normalising ties with Israel while it occupied Palestinian territories.

Hundreds of Egyptian Copts have defied the boycott each year at Easter time, but Egyptians do not visit Israel in great numbers, despite the peace deal between the two countries.

The pope's arrival in Jerusalem stirred controversy in Egypt, where the visit was greeted with a mixture of surprise and some anger. Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper called it a "crack in the Israel boycott wall".

In an interview on the church's Facebook page, Tawadros II said he did not consider this to be a planned "visit", adding it was a "human duty" to attend the funeral.

A spokesperson for the Egyptian church noted that the church had not altered its stance on boycotting pilgrimages to Israel. "The position of the church remains unchanged, which is not going to Jerusalem without all our Egyptian [Muslim] brothers," Father Boulos Halim told the AFP news agency.

Meanwhile, some business owners in the Old City welcomed the historic visit.

"This is a new pope with a new mentality not like the old one," said Alfred Raad, a Roman Catholic who owns a souvenir shop in Jerusalem.

"The old pope sided ... with the decision that they shouldn't visit and make pilgrimages to the Holy Land," he said. "But we miss it; we want pilgrimages to start because they are numerous and they create good business here."

Source: Al Jazeera