JERUSALEM, Jan. 31 (RNS) -- Recent Palestinian Muslim statements denying a Jewish temple ever existed on the site known to Jews as the Temple Mount and Muslims as al-Haram al-Sharif that now houses the al-Aqsa Mosque is a distortion of traditional Islamic opinions, according to the Muslim head of Italy's Muslim Association.

Moreover, Abdul Hadi Palazzi told an interfaith meeting here Monday, Jews and Muslims could feasibly find ways to ``share'' thehilltop compound religiously if both sides actively sought cooperation rather than conflict.

His comments echoed those of some 100 liberal American rabbis who declared in December that Judaism does not demand exclusive Jewish sovereignty over the Temple Mount.

Palazzi made his comments during an interfaith meeting seeking todefuse tensions over control of the site, one of the chiefsticking points blocking an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement. Theal-Aqsa compound has become a flashpoint in the ongoing clashes betweenPalestinians and Israelis, particularly since Israeli politician Ariel Sharon visited the site in September. Ongoing violence has followed ever since his visit.

``It is shocking to hear a mufti say that there was never a templethere,'' Palazzi said. He was referring to recent comments by JerusalemMufti Sheikh Ekrima El Sabri in which he said ``there is not even thesmallest indication of the existence of a Jewish temple on this place inthe past. In the whole city (of Jerusalem) there is not even a singlestone indicating Jewish history.''

``Saying such a thing doesn't just contradict the Bible, itcontradicts the Koran,'' said Palazzi, a lecturer at Italy's Universityof Velletri and a graduate of Egypt's famed al-Azhar Islamic University.

Palazzi also condemned the conduct of recent underground excavationsby Muslims inside the mosque compound, terming it a ``destruction ofeveryone's patrimony.''

Medieval Islamic commentators openly affirmed that the historicroots of the Islamic attachment to the al-Aqsa site lay in Judaism andChristianity, whose prophets Islam also recognized, Palazzi said.

``Denying the role of Jerusalem in Judaism is also denying its rolein Islam,'' Palazzi said. ``If we deny the role Jerusalem played in thestories of the biblical prophets, then we are also denying the role ofthese prophets in Islamic scripture.''

Islamic history also includes the traditional Muslim principle of``sharing Jerusalem'' even after the city became sacred to Islam as theplace from which the 6th century prophet Mohammed was believed to haveascended to heaven, the scholar said.

``When the Muslim Caliph Omar conquered Jerusalem (in 638 A.D.), aban on the entry of Jews to the city had been enforced for sixcenturies, from the time of the Roman Emperor Hadrian to the Byzantineperiod,'' he said.

``This was regarded as unbearable by Omar, who ordered that 70Jewish families from Tiberias should be relocated to the holy city andsettled in the southwest quarter of the area bordering the Temple Mount,exactly the same area as the Jewish quarter today.''

Palazzi blamed the current conflict over the mount and mosque siteon what he called the ``politicization'' of Islam over the past century.

And he said he saw no reason why Jews couldn't be permitted to prayon the mount, in coordination with Muslim authorities, or ultimatelyeven to build another temple alongside the existing Islamic structures.

``I have heard some rabbis say that when a third temple is built, itwill be built with everyone cooperating, and no one opposing,'' he said.

``If the issue is used to perpetuate the conflict, then there won'tbe a solution. But if it is understood that the presence of a templeclose to the mosque is something that enriches both religions, when thismentality is present, finding a practical solution is not difficult,"Palazzi said.

While Palazzi's opinion on Jewish prayer on the ancient site hasbeen warmly welcomed by many Israeli and non-Israeli Jews, it goesfar beyond the conventional Muslim approach to the thorny issue -- just as the comments of the 100 American rabbis went was in opposition to the position of most Jewish religious leaders.

Speaking in an Israeli television interview on Monday, PalestinianPresident Yasser Arafat said he recognized Jewish rights to pray only atthe Western Wall of the Temple Mount -- which is adjacent to but outside the Temple Mount and the al-Aqsa Mosque compound -- which for centuries has been a traditional place of Jewish prayer.

``I respect this. I respect this completely,'' Arafat said referringto Jewish prayer rights at the Wall, which Jews believe to be a remnant of the Temple retaining walls.

Arafat also noted that as a child he had spent ``hours there,watching Jews pray,'' while waiting to meet his uncle, with whom he wasliving at the time in Jerusalem's walled Old City.

Arafat's comments seemed intended to strike a conciliatory notefollowing Sabri's remarks.

In a separate Israeli television interview Monday, however, EgyptianPresident Hosni Mubarak also warned Israel against seeking Jewish accessinto the mosque compound.

Israel should stop ``complicating things'' by talking about claims``above the Haram and below the Haram,'' Mubarak said, using the Arabicword for the entire mosque compound.

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