JERUSALEM (AP) — After decades of shying away from an ancient pilgrimage route, Muslims are visiting Jerusalem to pray at Islam’s third-holiest site, the revered Al-Aqsa mosque.
In doing so, they find themselves caught in a disagreement between some leading Muslim clerics, who oppose such pilgrimages, and Palestinian leaders who encourage them as evidence of the city’s Muslim credentials.
Palestinians say the only Arab visitors have been officials from Arab countries that have peace treaties with Israel. Recent trips here by a top Egyptian cleric and a Jordanian prince sparked angry backlashes in their home countries.
The vast majority of the pilgrims are from non-Arab countries like South Africa, Malaysia and India, where the stigma of visiting Israeli-controlled areas isn’t as powerful.
“Jerusalem is a beautiful place,” said Ali Akbar, 51, a Shiite Muslim who was visiting recently with a group of 40 pilgrims from Mumbai, India. “All Muslims should try to come to Jerusalem and pray and seek the blessings of Allah, the almighty,” Akbar said.
Muslim pilgrims began trickling back beginning around 2008 as violence between Israel and the Palestinians petered out. Palestinian tour guides, hotel operators and religious officials also attribute the increasing numbers to easier travel and rising Muslim middle classes in Asia and Western countries that can afford tickets to the Holy Land.
While Islam’s birthplace is in the Arabian peninsula, Jerusalem is intimately tied with Islam’s beginnings. Muhammad’s first followers prayed toward Al-Aqsa and only later turned their prayers east to Mecca.
For centuries, Muslim pilgrims visited Jerusalem while on their way to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, now in Saudi Arabia. Many Muslims believe visiting Jerusalem deepens the sanctity of their pilgrimage.
But that pilgrimage route was abruptly halted after Israel captured east Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast war. East Jerusalem is home to the hilltop compound housing both Al-Aqsa and the Temple Mount, Judaism’s holiest site.
As a result, many Muslims believe visiting the mosque would amount to recognition of Israel’s claim to the area and be inappropriate when Israel prevents many Palestinians from entering.
Those sentiments have recently softened somewhat, and an estimated 2,000 people have come over the past year. That’s a tiny percentage of the roughly 3 million visitors to Jerusalem annually, mostly Jews and Christian pilgrims — but still a sharp contrast to the almost total absence of Muslim pilgrims here for many decades.
In February, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas urged Muslims to visit Jerusalem. Abbas said it would underscore the city’s importance to the Islamic world and bolster Palestinian claims to east Jerusalem, which they seek as their capital.
“The flow of crowds and congestion in (Jerusalem’s) streets and holy sites will strengthen the steadfastness of its citizens,” Abbas said.
Answering the call, Egypt’s leading religious cleric, Ali Gomaa, came to pray last week, saying the two-hour visit was a show of solidarity with the Palestinians. Gomaa arrived with Jordanian Prince Ghazi bin Mohammed. The Jordanian interior and foreign ministers have made similar visits recently, as has a popular Muslim preacher, Habib al-Jafri, said Palestinian officials.
But other Muslim leaders blasted Abbas’ call as a violation of an Islamic ban on traveling to Jerusalem while it is under Israeli control.
“Visiting the state of the Zionist enemy — for non-Palestinians — is forbidden,” Yousef al-Qaradawi, a widely influential Muslim cleric, wrote on his website. He said Jerusalem needs warriors not tourists. “Muslims are ordered to liberate (Jerusalem) and save it from (Israel’s) hands.”
Gaza’s Hamas rulers and Islamic parties in Jordan and Egypt all condemned the visits by Gomaa and the Jordanian officials.
Israeli spokesman Mark Regev said the visitors were welcome. “The city is open to pilgrims of all faiths,” he said.
The Al-Aqsa compound is a series of sprawling plazas holding the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the golden-topped “Dome of the Rock.”
The compound is sacred to both Jews and Muslims. It is one of the most sensitive religious sites in the world, and control over the area is one of the thorniest issues at the core of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. It is revered as the holiest site in Judaism as is home to the two biblical Jewish Temples. Jews today pray at the Western Wall located at the foot of the compound.
Palestinians use the area to worship and rest — one of the few open spaces in the intensely crowded walled Old City of Jerusalem. They sit under the soaring pine trees and walk among the intricately painted turquoise tiles adorning the Dome of the Rock. Children play football nearby.
During a recent visit, dozens of Muslims from Mauritius and India donned colorful long baggy shirts and pants that the women top with headscarves, the men with skull caps. They reverently prayed near a rock from where Muslims believe the Prophet Muhammad rose to heaven. Several women placed their hands in another shrine believed to hold a hair of the prophet.
But the foreigners are still a novelty, and officials who guard the Al-Aqsa compound plaza struggle with identifying them.
One such recent visitor was a middle-aged man in Western clothing who carried an Uzbek passport and claimed to be a Muslim. He spoke Russian — not Arabic or English — and couldn’t read passages of the Muslim holy book, the Quran, usually how guards check a person’s faith.
Three guards discussed what to do as the man stood nearby. Then one of them tapped out a question about Islam and translated it into Russian using his smart phone. He held it up for the man to read. He answered it correctly.
The guards slapped him on the back.
“Welcome,” one of them said.
Associated Press writers Ibrahim Barzak in Gaza City and Dale Gavlak and Sameer Yacoub in Amman contributed to this report.
Follow Hadid on twitter.com/diaahadid
More Related Stories
- Here come the tornado truthers. Already
- Peace Corps to allow gay couples to volunteer together
- Moore officials: Funds for "safe rooms" were held up by red tape
- Rand Paul: Congress should apologize to Apple, not the other way around
- Rescue crews race to find tornado survivors
- Looting in Oklahoma?
- Hundreds of low-wage federally contracted workers strike in D.C.
- Okla. mother's tearful reunion with her 8-year-old son
- New campaign compares gun control to anti-LGBT discrimination
- Study: Salt Lake City is gay parenting capital of the U.S.
- Inhofe and Coburn: Red state hypocrites
- Teen activist to meet with Abercrombie CEO
- Watch: Family emerges from storm shelter after tornado
- Must-see morning clip: Barackalypse Now
- Okla. tornado survivor reunited with dog trapped in rubble live on camera
- Is Pope Francis an exorcist?
- Oklahoma death count confirmed at 24, 9 children
- Frantic parents search for children in tornado's wake
- Crews dig through rubble after deadly tornado
- 51 killed in massive Oklahoma tornado
- Don't cry climate-change wolf
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11