Treat Al-Aqsa Mosque with the respect it deserves
After the brutal suppression of demonstrators at Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem 19 years ago, a disturbing situation arose: Tourists wishing to visit the world heritage site began entering the 144 dunum (144,000 sq. meter) mosque using the Mughrabi Gate, an unauthorized entrance.
Before September 2000, non-Muslim tourists were granted access to Al-Aqsa Mosque/Al-Haram Al-Sharif subject to the approval of a request submitted in advance to the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf in Jordan.
If approved, they could purchase tickets from the waqf in advance or upon arrival at the mosque, and were expected to behave respectfully and follow the rules for visitors. Visitors at that time were directed to enter the mosque through Bab Al-Majles, one of 10 gates surrounding the site. Nine of these gates have joint guards: One from Jordan's Waqf authority and an Israeli policeman. The Mughrabi gate is controlled solely by Israel.
The authorities that control and manage historic holy sites around the world face the dilemma of how to balance the legitimate needs of believers who worship at them and the desire of tourists to visit. Most holy sites - such as Aya Sofia in Istanbul, St Peter's Basilica in Rome or the Borobudur Temple in Magelang, Indonesia, the world's largest Buddhist temple - allow tourists to visit when they are not being used for worship, on condition that they follow strict guidelines for dress and behaviour.
Al-Aqsa Mosque has been controlled by Muslims for 1,400 years but its custodians are under pressure from radical Israeli groups who want to take control of it. There have been many clashes there in recent years, with dozens of Palestinians killed protecting their holy site.
Jordan's Hashemite family, whose current monarch, King Abdullah II, has custodianship of Islamic holy places in Jerusalem. However, the Israeli government has allowed this status quo to erode over the years, especially since the events of 2000.
King Abdullah and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas signed a historic agreement in Amman On March 31, 2013 reaffirming the monarch's custodianship of Jerusalem's holy sites. It stated that he has the right to exert all legal efforts to safeguard them, especially Al-Aqsa Mosque, which is defined as "The Entirety of Al-Haram Al-Sharif."
When Al-Aqsa intifada broke out, as a result of the brutal killing of Palestinians protesting against the provocative visit of Ariel Sharon to the mosque site, Israel changed the rules. It used its sole control over the Mughrabi Gate to allow radical Israelis access to the mosque, and soon most tourists were also entering the site through the gate while the legitimate Waqf-controlled Bab Al-Majles was ignored.
The constant visits by radical Israelis (even though two chief rabbis posted a sign saying that they should not visit) has been a cause of provocation that has often led to physical clashes and, at times, Israeli-imposed restrictions on worship. In Oct. 2014, King Abdullah held a meeting with then US Secretary of State John Kerry and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The result of the meeting was a simple understanding: Al-Aqsa is for Muslims to pray and all others to visit.
Despite this trilateral understanding, non-Muslim tourists continued, often unknowingly, to ignore the legitimate entrance to the mosque and were instead directed to the Mughrabi Gate, often after visiting the Buraq Wall, which Jews call the Western Wall, totally bypassing the Waqf administration.
This week a high-level Vatican delegation, led by Cardinal Leonardo Sandri from Argentina, who has been prefect of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches since 2007, visited Al-Aqsa and, naturally, entered using the legitimate Bab Al-Majles gate, setting a proper example for all others. But thousands of tourists continue to pour into the mosque using the wrong gate.
The blame does not only lie with Israel. Little has been done by Arab and Muslim communities to raise awareness among tourists of the need to enter the mosque using its official, recognized, legitimate entrance, and to abide by local rules governing acceptable dress and behavior. This is common practice at any historic site.
The Jerusalem Islamic Waqf has taken steps to try to remedy a number of problems forced on it by the Israeli occupiers, including preventing Israel from closing Bab Al-Rahmeh. The time has come for a worldwide campaign to inform all tourists who wish to visit the wonderful site of Al-Aqsa Mosque to enter only through the Waqf-controlled Bab Al-Majles gate, to obtain an official entrance pass, and to abide by the accepted norms of dress and behavior.
Supporters of Palestinians, and those who believe in justice and peace, must lobby for this important change and not accept Israeli attempts to bypass the legitimate custodians of this important Islamic site.
Daoud Kuttab is an award-winning Palestinian journalist from Jerusalem