ANALYSIS: What are the political implications of the lifting of the Temple Mount prayer restriction?

by - 13th May 2015

‘IT IS the most contested piece of real estate on earth: a thirty-five-acre not-quite-rectangular enclosure on the south-east corner of the Old City of Jerusalem.’

Thus journalist Gershom Gorenberg describes the Temple Mount/Noble Sanctuary in his book, The End of Days: Fundamentalism and the Struggle for Temple Mount.

The contest can be viewed as political or spiritual, and as one pitting the Israelis against the Palestinians or the Jews against Muslims, with Christianity a deeply interested party – on both sides.

Who can pray in that contested space?

Answering that question means taking account of both political and religious concerns.

The al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock atop the Mount go back to the early days of Islam.

Muhammad, in his celebrated Night Journey, is reported to have travelled from Mecca to Jerusalem on his winged steed, Buraq – a journey known as the Isra -- tethered Buraq on what is now the Wailing Wall, and ascended from the Mount to the Heavens – the Miraj -- where he spoke with various earlier prophets and was given the rules for prayer now in effect across the Islamic world.

Indeed, Jerusalem was the first qibla or direction for prayer, before Muhammad was instructed to make the Kaaba in Mecca the qibla.

The Mount – known to Islam as the Noble Sanctuary or Haram al-Sharif – was in Muslim control for centuries, and can reasonably be considered the third holiest site in Islam after Mecca and Medina.

In the aftermath of the Six-Day War, the Mount came under Israeli control, but for reasons of prudence combined with the sacredness of the site in rabbinic law, the Israeli government and rabbinate left the plateau of the Mount under the control of the Waqf, an Islamic trust overseen by Jordan that now forms part of the Palestinian Authority.

Under the Waqf’s direction, and with the support of the rabbinate, Jews and Christians have not been permitted to pray on the Mount.

Even moving one’s lips in what appears to be prayer has been forbidden.

From a Jewish perspective, however, the Mount marks the foundation from which the earth was built, the site where Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son, known as the Akedah or Binding of Isaac, and the site of the first and second Temples.

For Jews, it is clearly the single holiest site in the Holy City, the Holy Land, and the ‘navel of the world’.

Christians too have an interest in the Mount, since Jesus is recorded as debating with learned elders in the Temple at the age of twelve.  Helater spoke out against the moneychangers there: ‘It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves’ – and overturning their tables, and finally prophesying the Temple's destruction, which occurred in 70CE.

Freedom of worship

Freedom of worship in Jerusalem, the capital of Israel, on Temple Mount, Judaism’s most sacred site – shouldn’t every Jew have it?

One Israeli general suggested the Dome of the Rock should be demolished when the Mount was captured by Israel in 1967.

Instead, Israeli authorities approved a plan whereby Jewish prayer was forbidden on the Mount itself but permitted at the Kotel or Wailing Wall which surrounds a part of it.

Jewish ritual purity laws, likewise, made such a decision feasible, since special purification would be required for Jews to walk where the Temple Holy of Holies once stood.

Shifting sympathies

Israeli sympathies, however, are shifting, and there is now an increasing movement to allow Jewish prayer on the Mount, along with a movement to build a Third Temple – a project with which many Christian evangelicals, particularly in the United States, are in sympathy – and to prepare furnishings, ritual objects and priests (cohanim) for a return to Temple sacrificial practice.

Among many Palestinians, Palestinian Christians included, this development is predictably unwelcome.

And thus the ideal of freedom of prayer – which is also absent in Mecca where it is still a capital offence for non-Muslims to go – comes once again in conflict with the realities of a Middle East in which small sparks can set off major disturbances.

The Jerusalem Post reported in January that Jewish visits to Temple Mount had increased by 92 per cent since 2009. The Jewish magistrate’s court ruling that Yehudah Glick could no longer be restricted from visiting was hailed as a victory by his fellow activists [see accompanying News Focus].

Glick had been videotaped praying on the Mount, however, and as the Post put it in a more recent article:

'The Supreme Court has previously upheld the theoretical right for Jews to pray at the site, although it has stated that the security services are permitted to take security considerations into account when deciding whether to allow non-Muslim prayer there.'

Thus military and political pragmatism continue to clash with religious and libertarian ideals over the right to worship on the site.

While a precarious calm has been largely maintained, current stirrings on both Judaic and Islamic sides suggest that the Temple Mount/Noble Sanctuary is one of the world’s ‘hottest’ spots, and all developments there should be monitored with care --  and triple religious insight.


This article has been corrected to clarify that the Dome of the Rock is a shrine, not a mosque.