June 18, 2009 / 5:13 PM / 8 years ago

Jerusalem launches debate on sharing holiest site

Palestinians walk on the stairs leading to the Dome of the Rock on the compound known to Muslims as al-Haram al-Sharif and to Jews as Temple Mount in Jerusalem's Old City June 18, 2009. REUTERS/Ammar Awad

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Espousing a dream of harmony that may stretch credibility among even the most fervent believers in dialogue among the great religions, clerics in Jerusalem launched a project on Thursday aimed at finding a way to share the city’s holiest, and most fought over, site.

Even the Jewish religious scholar promoting it acknowledges it might need divine intervention before a peaceful remapping of the area where Muslims built the 7th century Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque on the site of the biblical Jewish Temple.

“We offer this vision for a long and deep discussion, and of course want to continue with a parallel research from other religions,” said Yoav Frankel, director of the project promoting a vision of “God’s Holy Mountain” (www.godsholymountain.org).

Invitations to Thursday’s launch conference depict a sunlit imagined future for the area Jews call Temple Mount. Happy Muslims and harp-playing Jews mingle between the Dome of the Rock and a new Temple, as Christians walk over from the nearby Sepulchre Church, traditional site of Jesus’s resurrection.

The project, headed by Jewish members of the Interfaith Encounter Association (www.interfaith-encounter.org) encourages all three faiths to re-examine the complex and perhaps foster a new theological outlook, making room for all to worship there.

DIVINE INTERVENTION?

But Frankel conceded it may take more than debate of Jewish law, or halacha, to alter centuries of tradition in favour of a compromise by which Jews would agree to build a temple nearby, not in the spot traditionally regarded as the correct site -- right where the Dome has stood since the 7th century.

“Regular halachic discussion will not be powerful enough,” Frankel said, referring to the need for a “holy revelation” to make such a shift possible in Jewish tradition.

Known to Arabs as the Haram al-Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary, and also respected by Christians and Jews who believe that the Dome covers a rock where Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son to God, the compound in Jerusalem’s Old City has been the cause of bloodshed, from ancient times to today.

It still lies at the heart of Israeli-Palestinian conflict and sovereignty over the holy sites remains a sticking point in international efforts to draft a final peace settlement.

Not even all members of the interfaith group, which is dedicated to religious coexistence, favour the new project, which does not address political issues of whether Israel or Palestinians -- or both, or neither -- should control the city.

Muslim cleric Abdullah Darweesh, who was to speak at the official project launch on Thursday, said all “holy Christian and Islamic sites should be under Arab sovereignty”.

Islam teaches that Mohammad rose to heaven from the rock under the Dome. Muslim clerics who run the compound have been wary of Jewish encroachment into the site since Israel captured the Old City and the rest of Arab East Jerusalem in a 1967 war.

A visit there in 2000 by Ariel Sharon, a right-wing Israeli politician who later became prime minister, helped spark a Palestinian uprising that became known as the al-Aqsa Intifada.

Since the Second Temple was destroyed under Roman rule in AD 70, Jews have prayed at the Western Wall, part of the ruins.

Many Orthodox Jews believe they must not set foot on the Temple Mount itself for fear of treading on the now unknown site of the inner sanctum. Some groups, however, call for Israel to seize the site and rebuild the temple, a step some believe would then herald the return of the Messiah and a time of world peace.

Additional reporting by Mohammed Assadi; Editing by Alastair Macdonald

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