CAIRO, Egypt, Nov. 26 (AP)--Arab states have almost unanimously proclaimed Monday to be the start of Ramadan, the holy month of fasting for Muslims, and two countries took the unusual step of calling for the "liberation" of a venerated Jerusalem mosque from Israeli control.

In a letter congratulating Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak on the imminent start of Ramadan, Grand Mufti Sheik Nasr Farid Wasel urged him Sunday to "help the Palestinian people to regain their legitimate rights and to work for the liberation of al-Aqsa Mosque."

Two months of clashes between Israelis and Palestinians have claimed more than 270 lives, most of them Palestinian, and led to large-scale demonstrations in Arab nations urging their governments to intervene. The al-Aqsa Mosque is part of a compound in east Jerusalem that Israeli troops captured in 1967 and is the third holiest shrine in the Muslim world.

The compound, known to Jews as the Temple Mount, is also Judaism's holiest site, where two ancient temples once stood, the last destroyed by the Romans in the first century A.D. Muslims call the site Haram al-Sharif.

In Amman, Jordan's Chief Justice Izzeddine al-Khatib al-Tamimi said in his traditional letter of congratulations to King Abdullah II that he hoped God would "salvage the blessed al-Aqsa Mosque from the hands of the aggressors and lift the injustice of the [Israeli] tyrants off our brothers in Palestine."

The Muslim World League, a non-governmental organization based in Saudi Arabia, called Sunday on the world's 850 million Muslims to support the Palestinians, saying they "suffer from all kinds of persecution at the hands of the Israeli attackers."

Ramadan, the holiest month in the Islamic calendar, is celebrated as the period when the Qur'an, the Muslim holy book, was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad about 1,400 years ago.

During Ramadan, observant Muslims abstain from eating, drinking, smoking and sex between sunrise and sunset.

As the start of Ramadan depends on the sighting of a new moon, Muslim nations disagree almost every year on when it begins.

In Saudi Arabia, the Supreme Legal Council said in a statement that Ramadan will begin Monday because clerics failed to sight a new moon on Saturday night.

Ten other Arab countries and the Palestinian territories have come to the same conclusion. They are Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Mauritania, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. The tiny state of Bahrain fired cannons to signal that Ramadan would begin Monday. Countries such as Sudan and Syria were expected to make announcements late Sunday.

Libya is so far the only Arab state to declare that it saw the moon on Saturday night and that Ramadan began Sunday. Iran, which is not an Arab country, has said it will observe Ramadan from Tuesday.

The Saudi Interior Ministry has warned it will deport any non-Muslim who eats, drinks or smokes in public during Ramadan. There are about 2 million non-Muslim foreigners in Saudi Arabia.

In most Arab states, government employees work at least one hour less than normal during the fast month.

In Egypt, rich individuals and mosques provide fast-breaking meals for poor people during Ramadan. The "tables of mercy" are set up outside mosques or in public squares and cater to an estimated 6 million people, nearly 10 percent of the national population. The custom dates back to the Fatamid dynasty, whose rulers decreed such meals about 1,000 years ago.

In Iraq, millions of poor people similarly depend on free meals supplied by mosques during Ramadan owing to the shortages and loss of earnings caused by the U.N. trade sanctions imposed since the 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

Traditionally, the end of Ramadan is marked by the release or pardoning of thousands of prisoners at the outset of Eid al-Fitr, a three-day feast that comes immediately afterward.

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