Future of Judaism's Holiest Site Uncertain After Peace Deal

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:08 PM EDT

Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Israel's Chief Rabbi has called on the Islamic authority in Jerusalem to halt illegal building under the Temple Mount to prevent bloodshed over the highly disputed site.

However, Rabbi Eliahu Bakshi-Doron said he preferred that Judaism's most revered site remain under Muslim control rather than spark religious tension.

Bakshi-Doron's reactions came after the Hebrew daily, Ha'aretz, reported that he favored the Temple Mount remaining under Palestinian control in any final peace settlement with Israel.

The report was based on a letter by Bakshi-Doron presented at an interfaith conference in Milan last week on the status of religious sites in Jerusalem. He wrote that the status quo of the holy places, especially the Temple Mount, should be maintained.

"We must be concerned at any change in this status quo, as that could cause harm to the place and lead to bloodshed," Bakshi-Doron wrote. "Instead of doing injury to the holy places, we must respect and accept the status quo of the holy places."

Taken in isolation, the statement could be seen as a willingness to compromise on the Jewish people's claim to their most sacred site.

But Bakshi-Doron said Wednesday that the letter was, in fact, presented in a bid "to demand from the Wakf that it not change the status quo ... and to stop the building that exists in the Temple Mount."

He said the letter had been written in response to rumors that Israel intended to end Muslim control over the Temple Mount.

Bakshi-Doron stressed his belief that Israel must "guard its sovereignty over the Temple Mount."

"If we don't protect the status quo, the Temple Mount can be a rock of contention that will cause the shedding of blood and the profaning of the holy place," he said.

Holy City is an Explosive Peace Issue

The Temple Mount is arguably the most significant potential stumbling block to achieving an agreement over Jerusalem's future, itself the most explosive issue to be hammered out in a permanent agreement.

The PA-installed Muslim authority, called the Wakf, oversees the two mosques located where the ancient Jewish Temple once stood. One, the Al-Aqsa Mosque, is revered as Islam's third holiest site.

The area falls under Israeli sovereignty, but since Israel wrested the area from Jordanian control during the 1967 war, it has allowed continued Muslim authority as a goodwill gesture.

That policy has been controversial with some Jewish groups that have long sought free access to the holy site. Wakf authorities do not allow Jews (or Christians) to pray on the Temple Mount.

Many Jews will not walk on the platform for fear on treading on the specific location of the heart of the Temple, called the Holy of Holies.

Since last November, the Wakf has carried out illegal construction work under the Temple Mount, causing what archeologists have called "constant damage" to the ancient site.

"It's the most outrageous and barbaric destruction of a site that I've ever seen," said Jon Seligman, the Jerusalem regional archeologist at the Israel Antiquities Authority.

Israel last year gave the Wakf permission to open a small "emergency exit" to an underground mosque, but the authority has failed to coordinate work with the IAA, as required by law.

Truckloads of dirt containing precious artifacts were hauled away and dumped nearby, creating a 30-foot mound, which has continued to grow since then.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has been hesitant to halt the building, fearing political repercussions.

Israel dates its claim to the Temple Mount to the time of King David, whom the Bible records bought the "threshing floor of Araunah" to offer peace and burnt offerings to God. David's son, Solomon, built the first Temple there after David's death. Later, a second Temple was built to replace the first one, which had been destroyed.

The second Temple was destroyed by Romans in 70 AD.

Although history records no visit by Mohammed to Jerusalem and the city is not mentioned by name in the Koran, Muslims hold that he visited the city during a "night journey" where he was taken by a magical steed from Arabia to heaven via Jerusalem.

Six years after Mohammed's death, in 638 AD, Jerusalem fell to Arab invaders. The grander of the two Temple Mount mosques, the Dome of the Rock, was built in 692 AD, and the Al-Aqsa mosque in the 8th century.