JERUSALEM, June 29--In an unprecedented move, Israeli Chief Rabbi Eliahu Bakshi-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 Christians to "be wary of every change in the status" of the Temple Mount, an indirect criticism of the recent construction work unilaterally undertaken around the site's al-Aksa Mosque by Islamic authorities.

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

The statement was made public in Jerusalem on Tuesday and promises to 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 in the hands of those who battle the peacemakers," Bakshi-Doron said in the statement which was delivered by Rabbi David Brodman, chief rabbi of the Israeli town of Savyon.

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

The letter was signed only by Bakshi-Doron, chief rabbi of Israel's Sephardic 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 tensions regarding the fate of the site are on the rise because of the intensive 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 underground prayer 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.

"This protest is not a result of political interests, but an expression of deep anxiety about what is happening there," Olmert said.

Olmert said it was the Wakf that is promoting a political agenda, wiping Jewish traces from the area so that Israel can no longer claim it has ties. He described Barak's decision as a "big mistake" and said Israeli police could stop the work by blocking the trucks from entering the Old City's narrow roads.

A number of noted Israeli archaeologists, writers, and intellectuals of all political stripes have expressed concern about the likely destruction of archaeological artifacts by bulldozers and earthmoving equipment that have been working for months in the area. Islamic authorities have barred Israel's Antiquities Authority from supervising the excavations, as was the practice in the past.

Israeli authorities have avoided entering the sensitive area by force for fear of triggering violence.

Traditionally, religious Jews avoided ascending to the Temple Mount or al-Aksa out of concern they might accidentally tread on the area of the sacred Holy of Holies, the inner sanctum of the biblical-era temples.

After the 1967 Six Day War, when Israel gained political control over the area of the Temple Mount for the first time in 2,000 years, the chief rabbis supported an arrangement whereby Muslim authorities continued to control the plaza area and the mosques atop the site.

Meanwhile, Jewish authorities gained control of the Western Wall, the revered site of traditional Jewish prayer below al-Haram al-Sharif.

During the 1980s and the 1990s, this status quo was gradually undermined by nationalist Jewish religious figures who broke with tradition and began periodic attempts to pray in the Temple Mount area.

The chief rabbis at the time tolerated or indirectly supported the effort.

"The truth is that Bakshi-Doron's statement is a reiteration of the position of the chief rabbinate after 1967 that was compromised in the course of recent years," said Rabbi David Rosen, of the Israel office of the Anti-Defamation League, who attended the meeting in Milan.

The new political "moderation" being expressed by today's chief rabbis has won the praise of Ron Pundak, one of the architects of the 1993 Oslo peace agreement.

"The very moderate messages that came forth from the Israeli side at the conference were influenced in large part by the moderate positions that Chief Rabbi Bakshi-Doron has adopted," said Pundak, who helped organize the event in Milan.

Pundak said that he is working to promote the creation of a joint Muslim, Christian, and Jewish commission to oversee Jerusalem's holy sites following a final peace agreement, to ensure free Jewish, Christian, and Muslim access. Such a commission would also oversee future repairs, excavations, and construction activities that might be undertaken at the sensitive sites.

"What is happening today is part of an ongoing conflict in which each side is trying to bend the other side," Pundak said. "What we want to achieve is a comprehensive agreement on the holy areas of Jerusalem from which all sides will gain more than they will lose."

But so far, senior Islamic religious figures in Jerusalem have been reluctant to support any such joint arrangements, Pundak conceded. Jerusalem's chief mufti, Sheikh Ekrima al-Sabri, has steadily maintained that all of Jerusalem's Muslim, Christian, and Jewish holy sites should be administered by Arab and Islamic authorities, as they were prior to 1967.

But secular Palestinian figures, who were also present at the meeting in Milan, have expressed greater flexibility, Pundak said.

"They were practical enough to see that we have to look for a joint regime in order to guarantee the interests of the three religions," he observed. "What was raised was the idea of a joint religious council, which will try in a parenthetic way to maintain and govern the sites in the spirit of the three religions."

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