Sacred Space Israeli Action Dug Deep into Religious Passion, Conflict

Article excerpt

TO CASUAL OBSERVERS, the decision by Israel's right-wing government to open a new entrance to a tunnel that runs beneath a Muslim shrine may not seem a likely cause for the extraordinary outburst of violence between Israelis and Palestinians. Jerusalem, after all, is a city where tens of thousands of tourists daily tromp over and around holy places, stroking every stone and column.

But for residents of Jerusalem, it should be no surprise that violent passions were aroused by Israeli tampering with the piece of real estate where stand the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa mosque - two of the holiest shrines of Islam - as well as Judaism's Western Wall.

Almost any sacred site in Jerusalem, whether Muslim, Jewish or Christian, is open to all - but to alter any of them, even in the most mundane or cosmetic ways, is to break a powerful political taboo and invite an explosion of bloodshed. That has been true for centuries - and no more so than when one religious group has been suspected by another of meddling with its sacred turf. Christians have vied for generations over the gerrymandered sections of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which has been partitioned among seven sects. Their rivalries, which periodically flare into scuffles, have inhibited repairs to the main dome because the sects cannot agree on what color it should be painted - leaving the sacred tomb below vulnerable to rain seeping through a leaky roof. Pious Jews in Jerusalem stage stone-throwing demonstrations to block Israeli archeological digs that they claim will disturb ancient Jewish graveyards. Dome Of The Rock In recent years, however, it has been the site of the Dome of the Rock that has aroused the most passionate and catastrophic clashes in the city. The place holds deep religious symbolism for Muslims. Moreover, during the past 75 years of conflict over the Holy Land, the raised, rectangular sanctuary has come to represent the competing and seemingly incompatible demands of Israeli and Palestinian nationalism. Muslims call the grounds, from where they believe Muhammed ascended to heaven for a conversation with God, the Harem es-Sharif, or noble enclosure. The golden roof of the Dome of the Rock has become an emblem of the Palestinian government that rules over parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip ceded by Israel during the past four years of peace talks. "The area is regarded by Muslims as sacred and therefore it should not be violated in any way," said Abdulaziz Sachedina, a professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia. "Any kind of tunnel opening or archaeological projects are regarded as sacrilegious. . . . So the people see it as a political message coming from the present government that (it) will not respect your sensitivities." The Jews call the site the Temple Mount, the site where they believe Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac before God intervened, a ground that King David once owned and on which King Solomon built a magnificent temple. Jews pray at the base of the Western Wall, a part of the sustaining structure built to hold the large, earthen platform in place. Since conquering Arab-held parts of Jerusalem in 1967, all Israeli governments have pledged never to return any piece of the city, including the mount, to foreign sovereignty. Was Open To Tourists The 534-yard tunnel, which retraces an ancient roadway rediscovered in 1987, skirts the western foundation of the Temple Mount. …

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