A debate has been ongoing for years in the Arab world about whether Arabs – Muslim and Christian – should visit the holy sites in Israel, especially the Al-Aqsa mosque. The controversy intensified recently following two major events: the issuing of a fatwa at an international conference titled "The Road to Jerusalem" that permitted some Muslims to visit Al-Aqsa under certain conditions, and the announcement by Bechara Al-Rahi, Maronite Patriarch of Antioch and the East (who is officially the patriarch of the Maronite Church in Lebanon, Syria and Israel), that he would visit Jerusalem with the Catholic Pope on May 25, 2014. An earlier event that contributed to the controversy was the April 2012 visit to Al-Aqsa by former Egyptian mufti 'Ali Gum'a and Jordanian prince Ghazi bin Muhammad, who is a personal advisor to the Jordanian king and head of Jordan's Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought.
The camp that favors visits to the holy sites in Israel includes, first and foremost, the Palestinian Authority (PA), headed by President Mahmoud 'Abbas, and Jordan, the latter being the official custodian of the Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem. The PA and Jordan even initiate visits by religious figures and others to Al-Aqsa. Those who advocate such visits argue that they lend support to the Palestinians and their cause, especially in the face of Israeli efforts to "Judaize" Jerusalem, and that they in no way constitute normalization with Israel. The camp that opposes these visits is headed by the International Union of Muslim Scholars (IUMS) and its chief, Sheikh Yousuf Al-Qaradhawi; Al-Azhar in Cairo; and the various branches of the Muslim Brotherhood (including Hamas), as well as Hizbullah and its supporters. Most of them rely on a fatwa issued by Al-Qaradhawi over a decade ago, which banned Al-Aqsa visits lest they be construed as recognition of Israel and normalization of relations with it.
It should be mentioned that Christian Arabs are not uniform in their stance on the issue of visiting the holy places in Jerusalem. The Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church, for example, firmly opposes such visits, while former Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Michel Sabbah was in favor of them.
This report reviews the three aforementioned events that crystallized the controversy over this issue, and discusses the debate about it in various parts of the Arab world.
Jordanian Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad on his visit to Al-Aqsa in April 2012 (image: Alwatan.com)
The Palestinian Positions: The PA Initiates Visits To Jerusalem; Hamas Opposes Them
As stated, the 'Abbas-headed PA and the kingdom of Jordan are the main parties promoting visits by Arabs and Muslims to Jerusalem and to the Al-Aqsa mosque in particular. For example, late last March, the PA launched a campaign to promote Islamic religious tourism to its territories and to Al-Aqsa. PA Tourism Minister Rula Ma'ayah announced that "two agreements are being formulated between Jordan and the PA [on the one side] and Indonesia and Malaysia [on the other] to boost the number of Muslim tourists visiting Jerusalem.
Therefore, 'Abbas naturally welcomed the Maronite Patriarch's forthcoming visit to Israel, as well as the fatwa issued at the Amman conference permitting visits to Al-Aqsa with certain limitations. At another conference, which was hosted by Qatar in February 2012 and dedicated to "saving Jerusalem," 'Abbas stressed the importance of visiting Al-Aqsa and called upon "brothers worldwide" to visit it. Earlier that year 'Abbas emphasized that the Koran and the Sunna did not prohibit visiting Jerusalem.
As part of the tourism promotion campaign, the mufti of the PA and Jerusalem, Sheikh Muhammad Hussein, also issued a fatwa emphasizing the importance of Muslim visits to the PA and to Al-Aqsa in view of the current efforts to Judaize the mosque in various ways. He claimed that "there are no religious impediments to Muslims visiting Jerusalem," and that "visits to the Palestinian territories reinforce their Arab and Islamic identity, signal opposition to the occupation, and help the residents of these territories to stand fast until liberation comes."
Sheikh Dr. Taissir Al-Tamimi, president of the PA's Supreme Islamic Court and chairman of the Supreme Council of Islamic Law, argued that the permissibility of the visit depended on the visitor's intentions: if he was coming to Jerusalem to visit Al-Aqsa, pray there and defend it, and if he visited Arab sites, stayed in Arab hotels and purchased in Arab stores, thus supporting the Arabs' livelihood, then his visit was permissible. Al-Tamimi stated that banning visits to Jerusalem on the grounds that they constitute normalization with the occupation is a mistake. "The call [to ban visits to Jerusalem] serves the occupation and sustains its objectives, because [then] only Jews are likely to remain in Jerusalem… [In that case,] how will we preserve the Islamic and Arab presence in it?"
In contrast, the Hamas movement, conforming to the position of the Muslim Brotherhood, opposes visits to Jerusalem. Hamas opposed the publication of fatwas permitting visits to Al-Aqsa while it is under occupation, and argued that the permission to visit Jerusalem was part of "a depraved war of Judaization led by the occupation and its thieves against the Al-Aqsa mosque in order to defile it, dismember it and expunge its [Islamic] characteristics."
In Lebanon: March 14 Forces Support Patriarch's Visit To Jerusalem; Resistance Camp Opposes It
On May 6, 2014, Maronite Patriarch Bechara Al-Rahi announced his intention to join the Pope on his May 25, 2014 visit to Jerusalem. This will be the first visit of a Lebanese Patriarch to Israel. Al-Rahi's announcement sparked an uproar in Lebanon, with most elements in the March 14 Forces declaring their support for it and the resistance camp generally voicing opposition; the Lebanese Christians were divided between the two camps, depending on their political affiliation. Al-Rahi is to enter Israel from Jordan via the Allenby Bridge, and his itinerary includes a meeting with PA President Mahmoud 'Abbas, visits to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, Ikrit and Bir'am in the Galilee, the village of Jish in the Galilee, and the town of Usafiyya on Mount Carmel, where he will attend a theological conference; he will also meet with Christian Lebanese living in Haifa and Acre and with Lebanese who served in the South Lebanon Army.
Al-Rahi emphasized that the visit is religious rather than political, while stressing his support for the Palestinian people and rebuffing his critics, saying: "I do not wish to anger anyone, but nobody should tell me what to do. I respect this state [Lebanon] while others do not respect it... I have no ties whatsoever with Israel. I am visiting Jerusalem and the Holy Land as a clergyman, and that is why I asked not to meet with any political official. I shall visit Bethlehem in order to say, along with [PA] President Mahmoud 'Abbas, 'O Palestinians, you have a right to establish a state of your own, and Bethlehem is yours...' We [Christians] were in the Holy Land before the state of Israel was founded. Am I not allowed to visit my people?... I have an obligation to visit [my people]... The Pope is coming to visit lands that are under my authority [as Patriarch]. How can I not be there to welcome him? Jerusalem belongs to us Christians before anyone else. That is why I am going there, in order to say that it is ours, that it is an Arab city... Nobody [in Lebanon] has sponsorship over me..."
Supporters of Al-Rahi's visit repeated his arguments, claiming that the visit is solely religious in nature and intended to support the Christians in Israel in face of Israeli attempts to usurp their lands. They stressed that Al-Rahi's visit does not constitute recognizing the Israeli occupation, and that he "knows enough not to fall into the Israeli trap," should some Israeli official try to shake his hand.
Opponents of Al-Rahi's visit emphasized that they did not doubt the sincerity of his intentions, but that the visit would serve Israel and constitute a sign of normalization with it. They added that the visit would have a political dimension, because the Maronite church is not only a religious body but also has an (unofficial) role as a political player in Lebanon. Also, the visit may have dangerous repercussions for Lebanon's unity and might undermine the status of the resistance in Lebanon and the world. The opponents noted further that Salafi-jihadi movements might use the visit as an excuse to harm Christians in the region.
It should be noted that Hizbullah, which heads the resistance camp in Lebanon, chose not to criticize the Patriarch directly and publically. Apparently, the organization wishes to avoid a conflict with so prominent a figure in the Christian community on the eve of Lebanon's upcoming presidential election, for such a conflict might cause him to support the March 14 Forces' presidential candidate instead of the candidate favored by Hizbullah.
Hence, Hizbullah voiced its criticism of Al-Rahi's visit using its usual indirect methods, namely through articles in the Lebanese dailies associated with it, Al-Akhbar and Al-Safir, which came out against the Partiarch's plan to visit Israel. Concurrently, the organization acted behind the scenes by sending a delegation on its behalf, including its political bureau head Sayyed Ibrahim Amin Al-Sayyed, to persuade Al-Rahi to cancel the visit, but to no avail.
Maronite Patriarch Bechara Al-Rahi (image: Dailystar.com)
"The Road To Jerusalem" Conference In Amman: Qualified Support For Visits To Al-Aqsa
On April 28-30, 2014, an international conference called "The Road To Jerusalem" was held in Amman. The conference was sponsored by Jordanian King Abdullah II and organized by the Jordanian parliament's Jerusalem Affairs Committee, the Arab League's Arab Parliament, and Jordan's World Islamic Science & Education University. The topic of the discussion was the harm and "violations" Israel was causing to Al-Aqsa. Also discussed were ways to help Palestinians residing in Jerusalem.
The conferees included Muslim and Christian clerics, as well as politicians. Among the prominent clerics were former Egyptian mufti 'Ali Gum'a, PA and Jerusalem Mufti Sheikh Muhammad Hussein, PA Minister of Religious Endowments Mahmoud Habbash, Jordanian Minister of Religious Endowments Dr. Hael 'Abd Al-Hafiz Daoud, Jordanian Parliament Speaker 'Atef Al-Tarawneh, IUMS secretary-general 'Ali Al-Qara Daghi, Muhammad Al-'Arifi, a Saudi cleric identified with the Muslim Brotherhood, and others.
At the end of three days of vigorous discussion, the conferees issued a fatwa permitting a very limited group of Muslims to visit Al-Aqsa: only Palestinians and Muslims who are citizens of countries outside the Muslim world. While the fatwa effectively rescinded Al-Qaradhawi's sweeping prohibition, it too did not permit visits to Jerusalem for all Muslims, as had been urged by the PA and Jordan.
The fatwa began by quoting a verse from the Koran and a hadith that constitute the source of religious authority for giving permission to these groups to visit Al-Aqsa. The Koran quote read: "In the name of Allah the Most Merciful, praised be the name of He who transported his servant at night from the Holy Mosque to the Farthest Mosque [i.e. Al-Aqsa]." The hadith quote, from the reliable hadith collections (Sahih Muslim and Sahih Bukhari), read: "From the lips of Abu Huraira who conveyed from the lips of the Prophet [Muhammad]: 'Do not set out on a pilgrimage except to three mosques: this mosque of mine [in Al-Madina], the Holy Mosque [in Mecca], and the Farthest Mosque." The fatwa continued: "In fact, clerics participating in this conference think that a visit to Al-Aqsa is desirable."
With regard to visiting Al-Aqsa when it is under occupation, the fatwa stated: "There is nothing wrong with visiting the blessed Al-Aqsa in Jerusalem, for the following groups: 1) Palestinians, wherever they may be, within or without Palestine, and whatever citizenship they hold; 2) Muslims who are citizens of countries outside the Muslim world."
The fatwa also set out limitations regarding those who are permitted to visit Al-Aqsa: "In any event, [a Muslim visiting Al-Aqsa] must take care to observe the following rules: 1) That doing so will not lead to normalization with Israel, because this might damage the Palestinian cause; 2) that the visit will help the Palestinians, not the occupiers...; 3) that the visitors will enter the mosque in groups of Palestinian or Jordanian tourists...; 4) It is preferable that the visits, as much as possible, be conducted in the framework of the Hajj or the Umrah [pilgrimage not on the date of the Hajj], in a collective and influential manner so as to serve the important shari' interests and support the Palestinian economy in general and the [Palestinian] economy of Jerusalem in particular, and so as to [support the Palestinians] politically with the aim of defending Al-Aqsa and the holy sites."
Conferees at The Road To Jerusalem conference in Amman (image: Elaph.com, May 1, 2014)
Naturally, once published, the fatwa had supporters and opponents; among its prominent supporters were senior Jordanians and Palestinian officials, and its opponents included the IUMS and the Muslim Brotherhood. The opponents claimed that this encouraged the prohibited normalization.
Dr. 'Abdallah Kanaan, secretary-general of Jordan's Royal Committee for Al-Quds Affairs, stressed that visiting Jerusalem was "a duty for anyone who wants Jerusalem to stand fast together with its residents in the face of the Israeli aggression." He said that visits to Jerusalem were a type of "resistance to the Israeli occupation, that wants Jerusalem to be its eternal capital, free of Arabs, Muslims, and Christians." Regarding those who rejected visiting Jerusalem, he noted that "the Arabs and Muslims have never stopped visiting Jerusalem and its holy sites – even during the Crusader occupation of the city."
In contrast, IUMS secretary-general 'Ali Al-Qara Daghi expressed vehement opposition to visiting Jerusalem, based on fatwas by Muslim clerics who had rejected visits to Al-Aqsa by non-Palestinian Muslims that were issued many years before Al-Qaradhawi's fatwa. Al-Qara Daghi mentioned in this context Egyptian mufti 'Abd Al-Halim Mahmoud's refusal to accompany Egyptian president Anwar Sadat on his visit to Jerusalem.
Al-Qara Daghi also stated that visiting Jerusalem legitimizes the occupation, and that therefore there must be no such visits – instead, there must be action to remove the occupation: "Visiting Jerusalem in the shadow of the repressive occupation that aspires to expunge all the Muslim and Christian characteristics and [all traces of] Islamic history [from the city]... and [in the shadow of] its energetic attempts to achieve normalization, is a loathsome and extremely damaging act... Muslims must not be partners to this crime. On the contrary, they must set out for Al-Aqsa in order to liberate it by all possible means..."
Former Egyptian Mufti 'Ali Gum'a's Visit To Jerusalem In April 2012
'Ali Gum'a, then mufti of Egypt, visited Al-Aqsa in April 2012 despite the opposition of IUMS head Yousuf Al-Qaradhawi, Al-Azhar, and the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice party. At an emergency meeting on the issue, Al-Azhar's Academy for Islamic Studies clarified that visits to Jerusalem were prohibited as long as the mosque remained under Israeli occupation, and that applying to the Israeli occupier for a visa was a form of normalization.
Gum'a, for his part, clarified that his visit was personal and unofficial and completely sponsored by the Jordanian authorities, and that he had not received an Israeli entrance visa. He explained further that he had visited Al-Aqsa at the invitation of the Jordanian King and under Jordanian protection, and that he opposed any form of normalization with the occupation. He said he hoped to visit Al-Aqsa again "after its liberation."
The Jerusalem Mufti's office sided with Gum'a and rejected the criticism against him, arguing that he had not violated the shari'a by his visit, but had conveyed a message about the need to save Al-Aqsa from the plans to Judaize it. In an announcement, the Mufti's office added that preventing visits to Jerusalem served Israel's objectives of severing Jerusalem from its Islamic environment.
Ali Gum'a on his visit to Jerusalem (images: Aljazeera.com, April 19, 2012; Ikhwanweb.com April 20, 2012)
"What I did was normal, not normalization." (Al-Ahram, Egypt, April 23, 2012)
It should be noted that 4,000 Copts visited Jerusalem in April 2014 to celebrate Easter. They came despite the opposition of the Coptic Orthodox Church, which is based on a decree by the previous Coptic patriarch, Shenouda III, that Copts must not visit Jerusalem "until its liberation." The current patriarch, Tawadros II, endorsed this decree and warned that those violating it would be investigated and punished, for example by being banned from attending certain religious ceremonies for a year.
*B. Chernitsky is a research fellow at MEMRI.
 In addition, a delegation of Moroccan imams living in France is also expected to arrive in Jerusalem in the coming months; their visit was arranged in coordination with the Israeli embassy in France (Al-Quds Al-Arabi, London, May 19, 2014).
 Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), April 19, 2014.
 Jordan's Hashemite Dynasty has been the custodian of the holy places in Jerusalem since 1924; in 2013, 'Abbas and Jordanian King 'Abdallah II signed an agreement officially recognizing this arrangement. See MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 987, "Agreement Between Jordan, Palestinian Authority Officially Recognizes Jordan's Custodianship Over Jerusalem's Holy Places," June 24, 2013.
 24.ae, April 30, 2014.
 Ahead of former Egyptian mufti 'Ali Gum'a's visit to Al-Aqsa, Al-Qaradhawi issued an announcement in which he mentioned this fatwa and reiterated his ban on visiting the mosque (iumsonline.org, undated).
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