Middle East
Egypt to halt annual Israeli pilgrimage
Foreign ministry says holding annual visit to rabbi's tomb is "impossible" owing to political and security concerns.
Last Modified: 11 Jan 2012 16:50
Egyptian residents in the Nile Delta say have been harassed by security forces escorting the Israeli pilgrims [EPA]

Egypt has told Israel 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, officials say.

The Egyptian foreign ministry said on Wednesday it had 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", an official said on condition of anonymity.

Ceremonies at the tomb of Rabbi Yaakov Abu Hatzira have generated yearly political controversy in Egypt throughout most of the last decade.

Several cases have been filed in court demanding that it end.

The decision to cancel the gathering came after several political groups launched a campaign against the influx of Israeli visitors.

Islamists, nationalists and others believe the government's permission for the pilgrimage is another step in an unpopular policy of normalisation with the country's former enemy.

People's 'will'

An Islamist politician involved in organising protests against the march said that visiting Abu Hatzira's grave in the village of Daymouta, 180km north of Cairo, would be a "suicide mission" for Israelis, citing popular opposition to their presence in Egypt.

"Normalisation [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 organised 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 on Tuesday that 31 parties and groups had joined this year's campaign.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish human-rights group based in Los Angeles, denounced the attempts to block the pilgrimage.

In a Tuesday statement, the organisation's Abraham Cooper accused the Muslim Brotherhood of trying to "curb religious freedom of Jews".

"In their world-view, there is no respect for the traditions for Jews, dead or alive," he said.

Pilgrims limited

The son of a chief rabbi in 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 near Alexandria.

According to tradition, his followers tried to move his tomb three times but were prevented each time by heavy storms.

After Egypt and Israel signed a peace treaty in 1979, Jewish devotees, mostly of Moroccan origin, have travelled annually to the site. 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. Locals complain of harassment by security forces deployed to protect the pilgrims.

Activists oppose the normalisation of relations with a country that Egypt fought in four wars between 1948 and 1973. In 2009, Egypt officially denied the pilgrims entry because the anniversary fell while Israel was conducing an offensive in Gaza.

A year later, the Israeli press reported that Hosni Mubarak, the deposed president, accepted a request from Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, to lift the limits on the number of pilgrims.

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