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 , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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

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.

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"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.

But the focus over the past week has centered on the Islamic Movement of the North, a Muslim fundamentalist group which operates inside Israeli borders, centered in the town of Umm el-Fahm.

Israeli officials view its leader, Sheikh Raed Salah, to be a firebrand who is stirring up religious passions by warning Muslims that Israel is endangering the al-Aqsa Mosque by doing archeological excavations in the area. On Wednesday, Mr. Salah was arrested on charges of incitement, then released after being barred from entering Jerusalem for 30 days.

The mufti defends Salah, and points to his being banned as an example of a policy that is serving to build resentment, not diffuse it.

"I don't think Sheikh Salah is the problem. He's done nothing against the law, and he has the right to visit al-Aqsa like any Muslim," Hussein says. "It's Israel's measures that have created the problem."

Too harsh a message

Not everyone agrees. Even some leaders in Sheikh Raed's own movement say his message is coming across too harshly, and could be communicated more peacefully.

"The battle cries by Sheikh Salah represent us in essence, but can be said differently, in a calmer tone," one of the movement's founders, Sheikh Hashem Abed al-Rahman, said in a statement.

Ata Ighbarieh, a member of the High Committee, an organization of Israeli-Arabs or Palestinians inside Israel, called for a more measured approach.

"Clerics like Raed Salah should work on calming down the Muslim masses in order to avoid loss of life," he says in a telephone interview. "As clerics, we should be responsible to maintain peace and stability for our people. The best way to do that is through dialogue, not harsh words."

"I believe that the Muslim reaction should be less intense, to give an opportunity to the Israeli government to oppress their own extremists," Mr. Ighbarieh says in reference to fringe Jewish groups that have for years been petitioning to pray on the same site as the mosques. The plateau is known as the Noble Sanctuary in Arabic and the Temple Mount in Hebrew, a reference to the site of the Second Temple destroyed in A.D. 70.

Israel's President Shimon Peres, visiting with rabbis on Thursday in the last days of the weeklong Sukkot festival, also known as Feast of the Tabernacles, said he was worried about a religious war in Jerusalem and concerned that "inciters can set the whole thing on fire."

Rabbi Yosef Sholom Elyashiv, considered one of the most senior Ashkenazi rabbis, said Jews are forbidden by religious law from walking on the Temple Mount at all. One, the site is so holy that no single Jew can be sure he is "allowed" to tread there, for it contains a place that in the days of the temple was reserved for high priests only. And two, in the modern context, it's is not worth the political outrage in could set off. Ariel Sharon's visit there in 2000 sparked riots that escalated into the second intifada, or Palestinian uprising.

"I have declared this in the past, and I repeat once again my statement," the rabbi says. "Beyond the halachic [legal] aspect, it is also a kind of provocation of the world's nations that could lead to bloodshed, and this would be one sin leading to another."

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