Photo: A Muslim man performs a ritual washing before praying at the Dome of the Rock in the background at the Temple Mount complex in the Old City of Jerusalem. (CNS photo/Debbie Hill)
The recent tensions in Jerusalem about access to what Jews call The Temple Mount and Muslims call The Noble Sanctuary brought me back to my own experience in September when our group of 18 U.S. Bishops were led up onto that holy place by our Palestinian guide who was a Christian.
Most Jews adhere to the position of rabbinical leadership not to visit the site which is the location of the ancient Temple, the center of Jewish life and worship till the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD. Jewish prayer goes on continually at the Western Wall, the Kotel, where I too have on many occasions gone especially to pray for Jewish friends who have died.
On the spacious plaza of the Temple Mount are two extraordinary Islamic places of pilgrimage and worship, the Dome of the Rock and El Aksa mosque. In the past, non-Muslims like myself could enter these holy places and admire their artistic beauty and acknowledge this site as the third most holy place for Muslims. Now, non-Muslims must remain outside on the plaza . As I sat there with my brother bishops and listened for almost a half hour to our guide give us his interpretation of the area, I must admit to becoming impatient and uneasy. Why did we have to go there at all? Why would anyone except pious Muslims want to go there and stare at the landscape? I would much prefer to use the time quietly praying the Psalms at the Western Wall.
This brings me back to the current tensions which began when a rabbi, who all consider extreme, went up on the Temple Mount to pray against the advice of Rabbinic leadership that Jews should stay off the Temple Mount. If Jews, out of respect for their own traditions, and out of respect we all owe to Muslims who worship on this Noble Sanctuary, should avoid going there, why should non-Muslim tourists like me go there?
With all the many issues that are causes of tension between Israel and their Arab neighbors who refuse to recognize Israel, it seems to me that all non-Muslims, Israelis and tourists alike, should respect our Muslim neighbors and leave the plaza with its two holy shrines exclusively to Muslims who go there to pray.
King Abdullah of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is the hereditary guardian of these places administered through a special commission called the Waqf. Jordan is one of the only two Arab countries that recognizes Israel. I would like to suggest that Jordan and Israel agree that access to the Noble Sanctuary be limited to Muslim worshipers and that the rest of us, Jews, Christians and tourists not be allowed for any reason, well-intentioned or not, to disturb the peace for those who go to worship there.