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Jerusalem's grand mufti: Israel wrong to block Al-Aqsa Mosque

In rare interview, Al-Aqsa Mosque's Sheikh Hussein speaks out against Israel's actions.

By Ilene R. PrusherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 8, 2009

Sheikh Mohammed Ahmad Hussein, Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and Orator of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, says he's concerned about the escalation of tensions in Jerusalem. He stands here against a sweeping picture of Jerusalem in his office.

Ilene R. Prusher / The Christian Science Monitor

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Jerusalem

As grand mufti of Jerusalem and orator of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, Sheikh Mohammed Ahmad Hussein has the power to sway millions of Muslims.

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But in his three years since being appointed mufti – a title that dates to the British Mandate and bestows guardianship over the Islamic holy places here – Sheikh Hussein has been relatively reserved. He chooses his words carefully, stays above the political fray, and, despite his ability to issue fatwas, has not made any Islamic rulings that have engendered controversy.

Which is why, when he now says that Israel is creating tension in the holy city and endangering the Al-Aqsa Mosque, it's a sign that things are not business as usual in the disputed capital at the heart of the Middle East conflict.

"We are always giving a message of peace, of avoiding violence, of no aggressiveness," the mufti said in a rare interview on Thursday. "But the Israeli authorities are continually taking aggressive actions and creating a situation that leads to conflict."

Sheikh: Wrong move by Israel

Most unacceptable, he says, is Israel's move last week – not for the first time – to limit access to the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock complex to men over the age of 50. Israeli police say it's a temporary but necessary measure to keep out rabble-rousers looking to disturb the peace for Jewish, Christian, and Muslim worshippers seeking access to the city's elbow-to-elbow religious sites.

That explanation doesn't fly, Hussein says, and anger over the policy is only growing.

"Even if it were only one day when they did this, we would find it offensive and problematic. It blocks our freedom of worship," says Sheikh Hussein, a slight-framed, serious-minded man who sits in a well-appointed office beneath the portrait of the man who appointed him – Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas – and another of the late Yasser Arafat.

"There are military checkpoints surrounding the mosque on all sides, and they inspect anyone who tries to enter," says Hussein, himself included.

It is difficult to predict how worrisome that anger might be and what it means in the short term. Tomorrow's Friday midday prayers, the biggest of the Muslim week, are feared to be the site of clashes with Israeli police who maintain overall control of the area. Israeli police are on their second-highest level of alert. Not a day of the past week has passed without clashes somewhere in Jerusalem.

Earlier this week in Cairo, Qatari Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, head of the International Association of Muslim Scholars, called on Muslims to observe a "day of rage'" Friday in support of the al-Aqsa Mosque.

Hussein says he hopes that won't be read as a call to violence, but of steadfastness.

"We don't want conflict," he says, "but the feeling on the ground is indicating an escalation, if the Israelis don't change their approach."

Tensions high since Yom Kippur

Tensions near the city's holy sites and in East Jerusalem neighborhoods have been high since Sept. 27, the eve of Yom Kippur – the holiest day in the Jewish calendar – when young Palestinian men clashed with Israeli police near the holy sites.

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