Egypt bans festival to honour Rabbi

After the 1979 peace treaty with Israel, Egypt began allowing organised and heavily secured trips to the tomb of Yaakov Abu Hatzira in the Nile Delta province of Beheira, south of Alexandria. The Culture Ministry declared the site an Egyptian cultural monument in 2001.

The Administrative Court of Alexandria banned the visits and stripped the ministry’s designation. It acted on a complaint filed by local residents who objected to the mingling of men and women and the consumption of alcohol at the festival, and claimed that strict security measures applied during the festival negatively affected their normal daily life.

Abu Hatzira, born in northern Morocco in 1805, was a son of the chief Rabbi of Morocco. He fell ill during a visit to the sacred sites in Jerusalem and died in Egypt in 1879. His grave became a shrine built on a small plot of land in the largely rural Nile Delta province. 

He is revered by some Jews as a mystic renowned for his piety and for performing miracles. The annual festival has in the past drawn hundreds of religious pilgrims each year, mostly Jews from Israel, Morocco and France.

Jewish community
The tomb is a vestige of Egypt’s once-prosperous and thriving Jewish community, which dates back to the time before Moses. At the time of the founding of Israel in 1948, they numbered about 80 000 people. But the multiple Arab-Israeli wars, and the resentment and expulsions that they engendered, have reduced Egypt’s Jewish community to a few dozen elderly people in Alexandria and Cairo, according to the Israeli embassy. 

The annual religious festival has been a long-term source of controversy in Egypt. A court cancelled the event in 2001, but it was later resumed. In 2009, the Egyptian government banned Jewish pilgrims from entering because it took place during the Israeli government’s Cast Lead offensive in the Gaza Strip; officials said they could not guarantee the pilgrims’ safety at a time of intense public anger toward Israel.

In 2010, Egyptian security authorities arrested 25 men suspected of forming a new Islamic militant group that planned to carry out attacks on targets inside Egypt including the tomb of Abu Hatzira. In 2012, the government called off the festival, citing political instability in the wake of the 2011 revolution that ousted Hosni Mubarak from power. 

Monday’s court ruling, if it stands, seeks to permanently ban the festival. Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesperson Emmanuel Nahshon said his office is examining the decision of the local Egyptian court and, if necessary, will approach the Egyptian authorities about the issue and stress the importance of freedom of worship.

Jewish leader condemns ban
The head of Egypt’s Jewish community, Magda Haroun, condemned the Egyptian court’s decision to ban the festival, calling the injunction “unconstitutional”.

“[The] Egyptian constitution stipulates that adherents of the three heavenly faiths have the right to practise their religious rituals,” Haroun told independent newspaper al-Masry al-Youm.

Local residents have repeatedly complained that Jewish visitors to the rabbi’s tomb celebrated the event by drinking alcohol and dancing. “I am opposed to the way Western Jews celebrated at the festival, by dancing and drinking alcohol because it violates our traditions as Egyptians and Easterners,” Haroun said. 

“But Egypt’s Jews have the right to visit Abu Hasira’s shrine because they hold him in high regard.” The court also ordered Egyptian authorities to remove the shrine from the list of national antiquities. – Sapa, AP

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