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Battle over holy sites

Struggle as old as the land itself

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Dan Balilty / The Associated Press

The struggle over holy sites such as the tomb of David mirrors the divide � and mistrust � between religious faiths in Israel.

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Dan Balilty / The Associated Press The struggle over holy sites such as the tomb of David mirrors the divide � and mistrust � between religious faiths in Israel.

The tomb of David, a king for Christians and for Jews and a prophet for Muslims, on Mount Zion is one of Jerusalem's architectural gems. Nonetheless, the site has become an example of how some believers in the disputed Holy Land hope their faith can dominate.

In 2012, the turquoise tiles designed by Muslims in the Ottoman era were removed.

"We cleaned it," says the curator at the National Center for the Development of Holy Places, a division of Israel's Ministry of Tourism.

First, some ultra-Orthodox enthusiasts used hammers to scrape away what they considered to be the shrine's 17th-century muck. Then some archaeologists from Israel's Antiquities Authority used a grant from a Jewish-Mexican benefactor to erect pews and shelves of prayer books to turn it into a synagogue. The police have abandoned their investigation into the desecration.

A struggle for holy sites is as old as the land itself, and today mirrors the divides between the predominantly Jewish Israelis and the mainly Muslim Palestinians, as well as Israel's 1.4 million Muslim citizens. It has intensified of late. On Feb. 25, Israeli police clashed with Palestinians on Temple Mount, a site in Jerusalem revered by all faiths.

At the same time, the parliament debated, but did not vote on, a bill to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the site. The bill defies a tradition, dating to the 13th century, saying Jews should not tread on the hallowed ground. Although some Jews do not observe the tradition, the authorities ban them from praying there.

Israel captured the Temple Mount esplanade in Jerusalem, which houses the al-Aqsa Mosque, during the 1967 war, but for decades it let the Muslim authorities exercise day-to-day rule of what they regard as their third-holiest site, after Mecca and Medina.

Jewish groups are lobbying the government to end the Muslim monopoly, arguing it discriminates against Jews. Some propose dividing the esplanade, as the Israeli authorities have done in Hebron, in the south of the West Bank, at the tomb of the Patriarchs, known to Muslims as the Ibrahimi Mosque. Others advocate building a synagogue nearby. A few Jews already have begun praying beside the al-Aqsa Mosque, pretending they are talking into their mobile telephones.

Israel pays for the upkeep of most mosques and pays their imams' salaries through the Interior Ministry, which looks after sites holy to religions other than Judaism. However, Jerusalem's municipal authority is overseeing the construction of a "museum for tolerance" in the grounds of an old Muslim cemetery.

In recent years, the southern city of Beersheba has staged a wine festival at the gates of the Ottoman mosque, which Israel confiscated in 1948 and subsequently has used as a jail, a courthouse and, currently, as a history museum filled with statues. When Muslims began to pray on the grass next to the mosque, Mayor Ruvik Danilovich put up a fence. If the mosque were restored, many Jews fear, it would become a magnet for thousands of Bedouin nearby, jeopardizing the city's Jewish status. The threat to non-Jewish shrines fuels Muslim fears of what would happen if a peace deal recognized Israel as a Jewish state, as Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu seeks.

"Each new ruler tries to monopolize the holy places of the other," says Yiska Harani, an expert on Mount Zion's turbulent history.

Often possession is more important than fact. The Crusaders first established the myth that David's remains lie there, Jewish experts say, installing a sarcophagus to attract pilgrims from Europe. Ignoring the Bible, which says David was buried elsewhere "with his forefathers,'' Jews and Muslims later embraced the Crusaders' tale to press their own claims to the hill. Ottoman Turks wrested the shrine from the Franciscans in the 16th century and gave it to Sufi mystics. Israel, which conquered it 65 years ago, handed it to a yeshiva, a Jewish religious seminary.

Israelis point out that Arabs have been bad at looking after Jewish holy places. When Jordan ruled Jerusalem's holy places for 19 years after the birth of Israel in 1948, synagogues in the Old City were destroyed and a road was plowed through Jewish tombs on the nearby Mount of Olives. At the outset of the second Intifada in 2000, Palestinian militants torched Joseph's tomb in the West Bank town of Nablus and painted its dome green, a colour representing Islam. Some Palestinian leaders still deny Jews have any connection to the esplanade where the temple once stood.

Some efforts have been made to improve matters, because Israeli Jews fear for their country's reputation.

"How can we demand that the world respect our synagogues and cemeteries, if we don't do the same to their holy sites?" asks Yitzhak Reiter, a former Arab-affairs adviser to the prime minister and the author of a book about Beersheba's mosque. "Preserving the heritage of other faiths is a Zionist mission.''

He suggests 20 mosques like Beersheba's, which fell into Israeli hands in the 1948 war, should be restored to their communities, and that plaques be put up in honour of 33 more that lie in ruins. Officials say they have quietly begun to do so, but only two -- one in Acre and another in Lod -- have gone up.

Muslim, Jewish, Christian and Druze religious leaders recently gathered at Israel's Foreign Ministry to endorse a code of conduct drafted by Search for Common Ground, a Washington-based organization. Governments, it declared, should ensure access to all religious shrines under their rule and protect them. Israel's chief rabbi, David Lau, called on the Ministry of Religion to recognize and look after all faiths' holy places.

Interfaith advocates reckon that restoring David's Tomb would be a good start.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 8, 2014 D5

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