A few years ago, I was having breakfast with a friend. Everything was fine till she picked at the butter and looked really irked. She called the waiter and asked him to please take it back and bring something that’s not Danish. It was the time when everyone was boycotting Danish products following the fury over the Prophet’s cartoons. The waiter complied and to her surprise, I didn’t say anything.

“You are not boycotting Danish products?” she asked, anticipating an answer she wouldn’t like. “No,” I said flatly. “Are you serious?” she looked shocked. “How come?” I talked for a good half hour about freedom of expression, cultural differences, the status of religion in the West, and the different perception of the concept of sacredness. She listened to me throughout and when she made sure I had finished, she made the most unexpected reply: “I cried all night when I heard.” That shut me up alright and made me feel how everything I had said was insensitive. I discovered that I had made a terrible misjudgment when I addressed an emotionally charged topic with logical argument. She might have already known beforehand the content of that lecture I was going to give and she might have even thought it made sense, but there was no way this would change the way she felt. I realized that it was not that clash of ideologies I wanted to believe, it was also not about which of us was able to memorize more articles from human rights treaties and U.N. charters. She is religious … I am not … Period.

From that point onwards, I have learned to bear in mind that religious feelings are not necessarily bound by the formal logic commonly used in earthly matters and that measuring spiritual sentiments with academic criteria is as insane as telling an atheist astronomer the story of genesis.

The Danish butter conversation took me back to a similar story. Several years ago, official newspapers started publishing a series of public apologies by Copts who performed the pilgrimage ritual in Jerusalem against the wish of the Pope who issued in 1979 an edict prohibiting members of his flock from entering the holy city as long as it is under occupation. I remember how, upon contemplating the supplicating tone with which they wrote their statement, I hated the fact that free individuals should answer to the clergy for their personal choices and how, upon examining the action for which they were apologizing, I resented what I saw was an outright recognition of the state of Israel. Between this and that, I thought that while the Pope should not have the right to prevent Copts from worshipping as they see fit, those same Copts should on their own accord refrain from taking the trip to Jerusalem under current circumstances. The commotion subsided shortly after anyway. No one was sure whether the flock was becoming more religiously obedient or rather politically aware, but the end result was the same: for years none of them ventured into that bumpy road.

The death of the Pope revealed that a large portion of Copts stayed away from Jerusalem because they chose peace of mind over risky proclamations of spiritual zeal, for soon after hundreds of them took a direct flight from Cairo Airport to Ben Gurion Airport and geared up for the first real Holy Week in decades. It was now crystal clear. In the absence of any authority that makes the consequences of the trip too grave to be tolerated, Jerusalem becomes once more the ultimate destination. The political administration of the city becomes of almost no importance at all as the religious passion takes over.

My friend was fully aware of the Danish cartoonist’s rights and similarly the pilgrims are fully sympathetic with the Palestinian cause. It is just a matter of priorities not in the sense that one single trip takes precedence over the lives of innocent Palestinians, but rather about this feeling of incompletion that is bound to persist as long as this ritual is not performed maybe together with a firm belief that religion should transcend politics like prophets should stay out of the realm of artistic freedom. Suffice it to imagine how many of those wanted to get one glimpse of the holiest site in Christianity before they die or how many others believed in the miracles such a blessed journey could work for them. It was a purely emotional act in response to a long-suppressed desire and which can in no way be considered a declaration of love for Israel or a lack of respect for the memory of the Pope.

The situation of the Grand Mufti of Egypt looks a lot different and the implications of the visit he made to Jerusalem and the prayers he performed inside al-Aqsa Mosque are seen as more serious. Unlike the few hundreds seeking communion in the holy land, the mufti is a public figure that supposedly represents millions of Egyptian Muslims who he must have guessed were very likely to be infuriated at such an initiative and indeed they were. Despite stressing that he traveled to Jerusalem via Jordan and that he did not obtain an Israeli visa, the mufti was accused of subscribing to the normalization project and calls for his impeachment and even trial have been echoing in both Egypt and Palestine.

Public reaction to the visit was quite predictable, but the mufti’s personal response was not. “God has bestowed upon me the blessing of performing the noon and afternoon prayers in such a holy place,” he said. Many people might see such a statement as a sheer theatrical cover-up, but I do see where he is coming from the same way I did with my Danish butter friend and the Palm Sunday Copts. A place as holy as that can apparently have a mesmerizing effect that blinds to Israeli flags fluttering all over the place and ultra-Orthodox Jews by the Wailing Wall or at least endows one with some conscious power that overcomes all that as it moves towards a nobler aim.

We could very easily ask ourselves why the mufti couldn’t resist while the Pope did or why Copts took the first flight to Jerusalem while Muslims never followed suite. The answer to that is as mysterious as the effect such a spiritual journey might have. Probably the pope was more conscious of his position as a figurehead who is not by virtue of his responsibility allowed to break an edict he himself issued and probably Muslims are more conscious of their moral obligation to abide by an implicit pact not to set foot in Jerusalem under occupation and which by virtue of their being the co-religionists of the majority of Palestinians and Arabs they are not at liberty to violate.

Reasons are not really important and as long as counter-arguments can be made about the necessity of Arab Muslims and Christians frequenting Jerusalem to prevent the Judaization of a city that is supposed to encompass all three faiths, there is no right and wrong as far as this goes. It is not fair to call those who go traitors exactly as it is not accurate to consider those who don’t patriotic. It is quite normal to follow your instinct in matters that solely and exclusively depend on the deepest of beliefs. It is also even more normal to be willing to bear with whatever trouble it takes for the sake of embarking on a journey towards salvation. Think of the physical hardships pilgrims to Mecca have to endure and multiply them by a zillion to imagine how it might have been before airplanes, air-conditioned buses, and five-star hotels and you have the simplest of examples about the way faith has the magical ability to surpass all sorts of pain.

I have learned not to judge people as long as I am not in their shoes and if I cannot say for sure that I would not have done as they did had I reached a degree of piety that makes a given trip cross the threshold from tormenting imperfection to eternal cleansing then I am not an authority on the matter. All what I know is that in my current condition, and which I do not expect will change, I will never embark on any kind of action that could imply from near or far a recognition of occupation forces or an endorsement of normalization with Israel no matter how keen I might be to see a historical and cultural treasure like Jerusalem.

This “Via” has apparently never stopped being “Dolorosa” and will remain so until further notice so those who take it have apparently more faith in its balm than fear of its agony. Wasn’t this same road, after all, the path to eternity more than two millennia ago?