Here come the brides

Al-Aksa Weddings project encourages couples from the North to marry at J'lem’s holiest mosque in attempt to strengthen site’s importance.

Palestian worshippers at J'lem's Al-Aksa Mosque 521 (R) (photo credit: Reuters)
Palestian worshippers at J'lem's Al-Aksa Mosque 521 (R)
(photo credit: Reuters)
The blushing bride came out of the bus carrying the train of her modest but impeccable white dress, followed by dozens of her relatives dressed in their finest outfits. The groom, who arrived on the second bus, was beaming with joy and pride.
Then the couple and their entourage went through the security check so they could approach Al-Aksa Mosque, where the wedding ceremony was to take place.
Abdullah Abu-Awad and his bride, Amira, together with their friends and relatives, had made their way from Kafr Kanna in Galilee, near Nazareth, to have their wedding in one of the most sacred Islamic sanctuaries. The ceremony and all the arrangements were facilitated by the Association for the Preservation of Al-Aksa and Holy Sites, an organization with close ties to the Islamic Movement in Israel. The organization promotes the Al-Aksa Wedding project in the Arab-Israeli sector, taking care of transportation, bureaucratic procedures, photography and media coverage.
Hekmat Naamna, chairman of the association, says that the idea behind Al-Aksa Weddings is to strengthen the bond between the Israeli Arabs and the holy mosque, and to make sure that Al-Aksa is filled with worshipers at all times. Although on Fridays it is not uncommon to find thousands of Muslims there who come to pray, on weekdays the Haram a-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary) is not bustling with activity. For many years the Islamic Movement has been organizing busloads of worshipers from the North to Jerusalem on Muslim holidays and Fridays. With the promotion of weddings in Al-Aksa, it seems to be taking it to the next level.
At the ceremony, the sheikh reads a few verses from the Koran, and then the marriage contract is signed. The family congratulates the couple, and a member of the association presents the newlyweds with a few symbolic gifts, such as images of the mosque.
The bride, Amira Abd al-Hadi, says she was delighted to get married in this extraordinary place. “First of all, it’s a blessing. It’s the holiest place for us after Mecca and Medina. Second, we have to remember Al-Aksa at all times, also when we are happy.”
Asked whether she would have preferred something larger, such as a traditional wedding in one of the banquet halls in Kafr Kanna, where all her friends and acquaintances could attend, she is quick to reply, “Some people throw huge weddings, and it’s a waste of money. They should donate the money to zakat [Islamic charity] rather than waste it.”
Prof. Yitzhak Reiter of the Ashkelon Academic College and the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies says that by promoting weddings at Al-Aksa, the Islamic Movement is achieving two of its goals. “The Islamic Movement usually promotes modest weddings in the Arab sector. They encourage people to highlight the religious part of the ceremony – signing the marriage contract and reading the Koran – and to waive the flashy party afterwards, especially the singing and the dancing. By promoting weddings at Al-Aksa, the Islamic Movement is nurturing the ties between the mosque and the Arab population in Israel, as well as making sure that the ceremony will comply with the Islamic code.”
Reiter says there are many Al-Aksa activities that are initiated and run by the Islamic Movement. “They hold an annual Al- Aksa composition contest for children, encouraging them to study and write about Al-Aksa. They also bring worshipers by bus on Fridays and Islamic holidays; there are summer camps that bring kids to Al-Aksa; Ramadan quizzes and many other activities,” he says.
“I believe that since 1996, the political and religious importance of Al-Aksa has increased for the leaders of the Islamic Movement. They monitor everything that involves Al-Aksa, constantly reiterating the ‘Al-Aksa in danger’ theme. The driving force behind this campaign is Sheikh Raed Salah, head of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement. It’s obvious that Salah sees himself as an ultimate Islamic leader, not just the leader of Israeli Arabs. Therefore, he is personally interested in promoting Al-Aksa issues, since they are understood by every Muslim,” says Reiter.
He adds that the custom of linking a wedding with some symbolic cause is not unique to Al-Aksa. “Many Christian Palestinian couples choose to get married in Bir’am and Ikrit, villages that were emptied of their residents during the War of Independence in 1948. The old church is still there, and the descendants of the original villagers come from far and wide to have their wedding ceremony there.
Meanwhile, the activists of the association are working hard to interest young couples from Umm el-Fahm, Kafr Kanna, Taiba, Baka al-Gharbiya and other towns and villages in the Arab sector in getting married in Al-Aksa. To date, seven couples have been wed in Al-Aksa, and several others are on the list to tie the knot there within the next few months. In the meantime, the heads of the project say they hope that “every young couple in Palestine will consider and honor Al-Aksa by getting married there.”