Temple Mount open for visits by non-Muslims
JERUSALEM (RNS)–For only the second time in three years, the Temple Mount, revered by Jews, Muslims and Christians, is open to visits by non-Muslims.
Since Aug. 20, hundreds of Jews and Christians have visited and prayed on the Mount, which Muslims call Haram al-Sharif. Currently, non-Muslims may visit between 9 and 11 a.m. Sunday through Thursday, but not on Friday, the Muslim sabbath.
Once the home of the first and second biblical temples, the Temple Mount stands above the Western Wall and contains the Holy of Holies, Judaism's most sacred site. It also is the site of the Al Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest place in Islam.
The Wakf, the Muslim religious body that controls the mount, closed the site's gates to non-Muslims in the fall of 2000 after Ariel Sharon, then the head of Israel's opposition Likud Party and now prime minister, visited the shrine to underscore Jewish rights to it.
Sharon's provocative visit sparked the current intifada.
The renewed access to non-Muslims is the result of months of behind-the-scenes negotiations between officials from the Wakf and Israel, as well as input from Palestinian and Jordanian sources.
In May, with little fanfare, Israel and the Wakf quietly began admitting non-Muslims to the mount, a fact that did not arouse wide-scale demonstrations. Three weeks ago, the Israeli government stopped the visits, citing unspecified security concerns. With the tacit agreement of the Wakf, Israel reinstated access Aug. 20.
Historically, non-Muslims have been able to visit the mount on-and-off since the 1920s. However, Jordan prohibited Jews from reaching the mount and other eastern Jerusalem holy sites during its reign over that part of the city from 1948 to 1967.
While many Jews hailed the latest development, saying that Jewish worshippers must never again be denied access to its holiest shrine, some from the most Orthodox stream said Jews should not visit the mount out of fear that they might inadvertently tread on ground considered too sacred to touch.
Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupoliansky, an ultra-Orthodox Jew, told the daily newspaper Ha'aretz he feared a Muslim backlash and even more bloodshed. He made his remarks the day after a Palestinian bomber blew up a commuter bus full of Jewish worshippers returning from prayers at the Western Wall.
Ruediger Scholz, pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Ascension, a German-speaking congregation on the Mount of Olives, voiced similar concerns.
“We need to see the political implications, and whether they outweigh opening the site,” Scholz said. “If the situation worsens, then it wasn't worth it.”