Within Jerusalem’s bounds lie three important holy places for Judaism, Christianity and Islam. These sites have often become a source of controversy between members of different religions, and among different sects of the same religion. Among the city’s holy sites, the most important sites are the Temple Mount / Al-Haram a-Sharif, the Western Wall, and the Holy Sepulcher, where hundreds of thousands of tourists and pilgrims visit each year.
What is happening in these three sites during the Corona crisis? What struggles are they experiencing during this time of emergency? Which of them is characterized by tension and conflict? And where does relative calm prevail?
Temple Mount / Al-Haram a-Sharif
On March 22 the last group of Jewish pilgrims entered the Temple Mount and immediately afterwards, the Temple Mount was closed for Jewish and touristic visitors and to Muslim worshipers for an unknown period. For the first time in the 17 years, since the reopening of the Mount in a unilateral decision by Israel in 2003 (at the end of the second intifada), the holy complex that has largely become the symbol of Jerusalem is now closed to religious visitors and tourists.
The closure of the Temple Mount due to the Corona epidemic was also accompanied by a struggle for power and authority around the question of who would close the holy complex: On March 20 hundreds of young Muslim men clashed with police forces at the entrances to the Old City and Temple Mount. The police tried to enforce the health regulations, which only allowed small groups of ten people to enter the Mount. Waqf guards closed the mosques and prayer rooms on the Mount – following instructions from Jordan and the Palestinian Authority – and hundreds of young Muslims, who were seeking for a shelter from the rain, prayed in front of the locked doors of al-Aqsa Mosque. They feared authorities would close the Mount to Muslim worshipers, leaving it open for only small groups of Jews.
The closure by the police of the entrance for the Jews on March 22 allowed the Waqf authorities (most likely in coordination with the police) to close the compound gates to Muslim worshipers as well. This happened exactly on “Lailat al-Isra and Miraj” – the holiday of the Prophet Mohammed’s heavenly rise, which occurred that day.
However, the situation is yet to be resolved, as groups of Jewish activists promoting religious activity on the Temple Mount are already threatening a High Court petition on the grounds that dozens of Muslim Waqf guards are still allowed to enter and pray in the Temple. Citing the principle of equality, Jewish activists have argued for Jews to be allowed to visit the Mount in small groups in compliance with health regulations.
The Western Wall
The Western Wall at the entrance to the Temple Mount remained open to visitors and pilgrims for a few more days. During those days, the worshipers were divided into areas where 10 people were allowed to pray and no more, in order to hold a quorum. The Rabbi of The Western Wall, Shmuel Rabinowitz, ruled that the stones should not be touched or kissed. The number of visitors was very small and only a few worshipers visited the site and prayed there. On the afternoon of March 25, the indoor prayer spaces near Wilson’s Arch closed down. On the following day, March 26, it was decided that only residents of the nearby Jewish Quarter could pray at the Western Wall and that only 30 people could be found in the Western Wall’s Great Square at once.
Here, too, it was not all simple: Arieh King, a city councilor, complained that “in the midst of the Corona crisis, in the midst of a historic political crisis, what is the government of Israel doing? Expanding reform to the Western Wall [in the archaeological park]”. King emphasized “that the work on the site is carried out without permission from the local committee, and if you ask who is responsible? It is the Ministry of Culture and Sport led by Minister Miri Regev.”
The Church of the Holy Sepulcher
A few hundred meters from the Western Wall lies the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the holiest place to the Christian world. Until the March 25, the Church was open to visitors and pilgrims, who could visit it individually or in small groups. Visitors had been asked by church leaders not to kiss the stone at the entrance to the church, the sacred circle on which the cross-stood, and the icons that adorn some of the church’s walls.
On March 25 the Church closed its doors, under the decision of Church leaders. However, liturgic ceremonies will continue to take place, led by the monks of the church – Greek Orthodox, Franciscan (representing the Catholic Church), Armenians, Copts and Ethiopians – that will continue to perform their liturgical ceremonies in accordance with the status quo rules set in the mid-19th century. In their view, these rituals are the work of God and it would be inconceivable to stop them because the world is founded upon them. These days, they are also adding a prayer for God’s help in the fight against the Corona in the hope that the light will defeat the darkness.
The history of each of these important sites therefore influences what is happening in these troubled days:
The Holy Temple for Jews and Muslims is closed, in part due to the intensified competition for control and the increase of Jewish visits to the Mount. This sense of Jewish encroachment on the holy site has contributed to the feeling of many Muslims that they must protect the Mount.
The Western Wall plaza, a place at the heart of controversy within the Jewish community, is under the control of the Jewish Orthodox establishment, which determines the rules of conduct at the site. Most of the struggles that are taking place today are around the alternative expansion found within the archaeological park, and the prayers of non-Orthodox Jewish streams in its area.
It is the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which was the focus of never-ending struggles between the churches and the powerful states behind them, that has been relatively calm in recent time, after the three main bodies that run the church – the Greek Orthodox, Franciscans and Armenians – managed to reach a consensus on the church’s management in the mid-19th century.
Days will tell what will be the effect of the Corona epidemic on the monotheistic religions and the holy places in Jerusalem. Will it be a passing crisis, one of many, or will it have a significant impact on faith and power struggles in Jerusalem.