Escorted by the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, a considerable Israeli security detail and coterie of Muslim and Catholic clerics, Pope Francis ascended the Temple Mount Monday morning – perhaps the most symbolic and contested territory in the Muslim and Jewish divide.
Under a clear blue sky, Francis removed his shoes prior to entering the Dome of the Rock, near al-Aksa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam, where Muslims believe Prophet Mohammad ascended to heaven. The Temple Mount is Judaism’s holiest site, where the First Temple and Second Temple were destroyed.
Shortly after visiting the mosque, the pontiff walked with the mufti, Mohammed Hussein and their respective entourages, to the cleric’s office, some 20 m. away.
Dozens of heavily armed police officers surrounded the group of approximately 40 men, as a highly vetted group of international journalists looked on behind a cordoned off area.
According to Muslim media reports, during the subsequent private 15-minute meeting, Francis beseeched the mufti and his followers to disavow violence and “work together [with Jews] for justice and peace.”
“May we respect and love one another as brothers and sisters,” the pope reportedly said during the discussion. “May we learn to understand the suffering of others. May no one abuse the name of God through violence.”
Minutes after the pontiff’s visit, he was escorted by a SUV to the Western Wall.
Overseen by the Jordanian Wakf Muslim religious trust, the Temple Mount has become ground zero in the ongoing, and frequently violent, religious tug-of-war between Muslims and Jews over sovereignty of the holy site.
Although the Supreme Court has upheld Jewish prayer rights there, it severely restricts such visits, and allows police to prevent any form of Jewish worship if they believe such activities will incite a “disturbance to the public order.”
This caveat has led to a plethora of Jewish arrests and detentions, as Jews can be detained for simply moving their lips to appear to be praying. Moreover, Muslim rioting is commonplace at the site whenever Jewish leaders visit.
Indeed, the bloody and protracted second intifada was launched shortly after former prime minister Ariel Sharon’s September 2000 visit there, which Muslims viewed as a profound provocation. However, despite Palestinians' claims that Sharon's visit incited the violence, copious research has since proven that the second intifada was planned months in advance.