Islamic Officials Stoke Anger Over Jerusalem, Warn of ‘Religious War’

By Patrick Goodenough | March 17, 2010 | 5:08 AM EDT

The restored Hurva synagogue in Jerusalem's Old City. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

( – The Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) is accusing Israel of risking “religious war” by rededicating a restored 300-year-old synagogue in Jerusalem’s Old City.
In a statement that made no calls for restraint by protesting Palestinians, the bloc of Muslim countries sought to link the synagogue reopening to often repeated claims about Jewish plots to destroy important mosques in the Israeli capital.
The landmark Hurva synagogue was formally rededicated Monday after a 10-year rebuilding project. Once the most prominent synagogue in Jerusalem, it was left in ruins by Jordanian forces during fighting against the newly declared state of Israel in 1948.
The Hurva stands in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City. (The small walled area – less than half a square mile in area –also has Muslim, Christian and Armenian quarters.) The Jewish Quarter has been home to Jews for millennia, with the exception for the 19 years between 1948 and 1967 when Jordan controlled the area.
Despite its Jewish Quarter location (see map), in a statement condemning the reopening, OIC secretary-general Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu claimed that the synagogue was “erected at the heart of the Muslim Quarter, just dozens of meters away from the Western Wall of the blessed Al-Aqsa mosque.”
The al-Aqsa mosque, the site Muslims regard as most holy after Mecca and Medina, is located on the Temple Mount, Judaism’s holiest site, where the biblical Jewish Temples once stood.

Organization of the Islamic Conference Secretary-General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu. (Photo: OIC)

Ihsanoglu added that the synagogue’s location made “crystal clear the grave implications of Israeli schemes that target the Noble Sanctuary and the future of the city of al-Quds.” The Noble Sanctuary is the term used by Muslims for the Temple Mount.
The OIC statement accused Israel of “dragging the region into a religious war by continuing its blatant assault on the sanctities of Muslims.”
Ihsanoglu appealed to the OIC’s 56 member states and other Islamic institutions to “provide all possible support and backing to the holy city of al-Quds and to its resisting and unfaltering Palestinian residents in their defense of the ummah’s sacred shrines, sanctities and interests.”
The OIC was established 40 years ago as a direct Islamic response to an incident in which an Australian man, who was not a Jew and was later declared insane, started a fire inside al-Aqsa. Over the decades since it has frequently invoked claims that the mosque is under threat to rally Muslim support.
Although the rededication of the Hurva synagogue had long been planned for March 15, its occurrence at a time of tensions over Israeli housing projects in Jerusalem has been seized on by the OIC and other Muslim leaders, with fresh claims that the al-Aqsa mosque is in jeopardy.
The rebuilding and rededication of the Hurva synagogue “signifies the destruction of the al-Aqsa mosque,” declared Syria-based Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal.

A Palestinian demonstrator holds a flag during clashes in east Jerusalem on Tuesday, March 16, 2010. (AP Photo/Dan Balilty)

Palestinian Authority (P.A.) officials accused Israelis of trying to falsify history and urged Muslims to flock to the al-Aqsa mosque;  Hamas called for a “day of anger,” and in some of the most serious violence in Jerusalem in many months, stone-throwing Palestinians clashed with Israeli police Tuesday.
Hamas held protest demonstrations in the Gaza Strip, with leaders calling for Hamas’ “armed wing,” the Izzadin al-Qassam Brigades, to “respond.”
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri in a statement accused Israel of “playing with fire,” charging that “attacks against the Al-Aqsa mosque is an Israeli crime that has gone beyond all red lines” and calling on Palestinians and Arabs to “rescue” the holy sites.
Also taking the opportunity to focus attention onto its traditional enemy, Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast in Tehran called the incident a “catastrophe that has distressed the Islamic world,” and called for “appropriate reaction” from the OIC and Arab League.
In contrast to its strong criticism of Israel’s recent announcement of new housing construction in Jerusalem, the Obama administration called for an end to what it called Palestinian incitement over the synagogue.
“We’re deeply disturbed by statements made by several Palestinian officials mischaracterizing the event in question, which can only serve to heighten the tensions that we see,” State Department spokesman Philip Crowley told a briefing. “We call upon Palestinian officials to put an end to such incitement.”

Palestinians in Gaza City protest on Tuesday, March, 16, 2010, against Israel's rededication on Monday of a historic synagogue in the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem's Old City. (AP Photo/ Hatem Moussa)

First constructed in the late 17th century – when the region was part of the Ottoman Empire – the synagogue was later destroyed by Arab creditors after the Jewish group building it ran out of funds. It became known as the Hurva (“ruin”) but after being rebuilt in the 19th century became the center of Jewish religious life in the city.
In May 1948, shortly after the Old City fell into the hands of Jordanian forces which along with other Arab armies had attacked the newly independent Israel, Hurva was one of 29 synagogues destroyed.
The Jordanian commander was reported to have said afterwards that with the destruction of the synagogues and expulsion of the Jews from the Jewish Quarter, their return was impossible.
Nineteen years later, Israel recaptured the Old City during the Six Day War. The city, including the Temple Mount, is under Israeli sovereignty, although the mosques on the site are administered by an Islamic trust, the Waqf.
Denied free access to the Mount due to religious and political sensitivities, Jews pray at the remnant of a retaining wall on the platform’s western flank, known as the Western Wall.
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow