The Mufti and Jerusalem

Egypt's Grand Mufti, Ali Gomaa, visited Jerusalem yesterday — sparking a huge controversy and earning the condemnations of the Muslim Brotherhood and countless others for the visit.

Mufti Ali Gomaa said on his Twitter account that he had visited Jerusalem, entering from the West Bank via Jordan and not from the Israeli side. He said he prayed in the al-Aqsa mosque, one of Islam's holiest sites, in the walled old city.

East Jerusalem was captured by Israel from Jordan in the 1967 war. Palestinians want East Jerusalem as a future capital of a Palestinian state. Israel describes Jerusalem as its eternal undivided capital.

Egyptian religious officials, including members of Egypt's Coptic Christian church, have for decades refused to travel to Jerusalem in protest at the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem and the Palestinian areas.

On Twitter, Gomaa said it was an "unofficial visit" to the mosque. The mufti's spokesman told the state-owned Al-Ahram's website that the trip which was his first did not indicate "any recognition of the Zionist entity" - a reference to Israel.

I'm not sure what Gomaa was thinking, as this visit is an unprecedented step with far-reaching consequences. The Mufti is, in a sense, the state-apppointed religious arbiter in Egypt, which is why any engagement with Israel is going to be seen as ill-advised by (but not only Islamists). It also puts the Coptic Orthodox Church, which under the late Pope Shenouda III refused to visit Jerusalem (surely an even more important place to Christians) in solidarity with the country's Muslims and the Palestinian cause.

He might also have known that the Islamist-dominated parliament would not be happy with this, and indeed there is now a move by Salafi and Muslim Brotherhood MPs to question him and possibly sack him (something that in theory is the prerogative of the president, or for now SCAF). What we have, then, is a preview of the convergence of religious issues and the Israel issue in Egypt's new politics.

(For the record, I have long thought that Egypt's dominant anti-normalization stance is, well, pretty stupid and narrow-minded. Gomaa was right to go there and engage with Palestinians and break their isolation — they need all the support they can get. It is neither a recognition nor endorsement of Israel, and indeed while there he could have denounced the occupation. )