Beliefnet
JERUSALEM, June 29--In an unprecedented move, Israeli Chief Rabbi EliahuBakshi-Doron has said Jerusalem's ancient Temple Mount--known to Muslims as al-Haram al-Sharif--should effectively remain under the administration of Islamic authorities who now control the site.

But the chief rabbi has also called on Jews, Muslims, and Christiansto "be wary of every change in the status" of the Temple Mount, anindirect criticism of the recent construction work unilaterallyundertaken around the site's al-Aksa Mosque by Islamic authorities.

Bakshi-Doron made his statement in the form of an official letter toa conference of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish representatives fromJerusalem who gathered in the Italian city of Milan last week to discussthe status of Jerusalem's holy sites in a final peace settlement. Thesession was hosted by the Italian Center for Peace in the Middle East, aEuropean Community organization.

The statement was made public in Jerusalem on Tuesday and promisesto open a new round of debate on sacred sites in Jerusalem.

"Sites which are precious and holy for Muslims, Christians, and Jews,should not be the cause of strife and conflict, nor become weapons inthe hands of those who battle the peacemakers," Bakshi-Doron said inthe statement which was delivered by Rabbi David Brodman, chief rabbiof the Israeli town of Savyon.

"We must preserve and respect the current status and sanctity of theholy Temple Mount, which is known to others as the area of the al-AksaMosque," he added. "We must be wary of every change in its status, forit could desecrate the sanctity of the place and lead to the kind ofbloodshed that is opposed by every religion and civilized society."

The letter was signed only by Bakshi-Doron, chief rabbi of Israel'sSephardic Jewish community (Jews with Middle East and Mediterranean ancestry). But it also had the tacit approval of Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, who leads the Jewish religious establishment representing Jews with central and eastern European ancestry, sources close to the rabbinical figures said.

Bakshi-Doron's statement comes at a time when Jewish-Muslim tensionsregarding the fate of the site are on the rise because of theintensive negotiations now under way on a Israeli-Palestinian final peace accord and the controversial new construction around al-Aksa Mosque.

Both Israel and the Palestinians claim Jerusalem as their capital, and the city's future status is one of the knottiest unresolved issues in the peace process. At the heart of the Jerusalem question is the conflict over control of the Old City's holy sites.

The new Temple Mount construction has included the creation last year of a large undergroundprayer chamber in an area traditionally known as Solomon's Stables and, more recently, the paving of a plaza on al-Haram al-Sharif that would lead down to the prayer chamber.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak gave Palestinian religious authorities the go-ahead Wednesday to continue expanding prayer accommodations, prompting protests from politicians and archaeologists.

Work would continue at the site, Barak's office said in a statement, with measures in place "maintaining the status-quo and not damaging archaeological artifacts."

That prompted expressions of outrage from politicians and archaeologists, who say that the expansion is destroying rare Jewish and Islamic relics at the site.

"Barak gave a green light to an explosive situation," said Eilat Mazar, an archeology professor at Hebrew University who has worked on the Temple Mount.

The Temple Mount is the site of the First and Second Jewish temples and abuts the Western Wall--the only remainder of the Roman sacking of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., and Judaism's holiest site.

Two of the mosques--the Dome of the Rock and al-Aksa--in the 13th-century Muslim sanctuary atop the mount are collectively considered the third holiest site in Islam, marking the terminus, it is believed, of the Prophet Muhammad's night journey from Mecca to Jerusalem and his ascent to heaven.

The site has remained under Muslim control even after Israel captured Jerusalem's walled Old City in the 1967 Mideast War.

The Wakf--the Islamic religious council that administers the site--has launched expansion projects, saying that the site can barely accommodate the thousands who now arrive for Friday prayers.

When news of the latest construction work first emerged earlier this year, archaeologists identified rare and ancient shards in a dump outside Jerusalem where workers had left debris.

Wakf officials have said that the protests are a political attempt to undermine the Muslim claim to the site.

Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert, a leader of Israel's right-wing opposition Likud party, said his opposition did not stem from political considerations, but from his concern that important historical artifacts could be lost forever.

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