In Change, Palestinians Now Seek High-Profile Visits For decades, the Palestinians have urged foreign Muslims to boycott one of the holiest sites in Islam, the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. But now, Palestinian religious figures are encouraging such visits, saying they could highlight Palestinian claims in their feud with Israel.
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In Change, Palestinians Now Seek High-Profile Visits

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In Change, Palestinians Now Seek High-Profile Visits

In Change, Palestinians Now Seek High-Profile Visits

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

For decades now, Muslims around the world have been unofficially boycotting Islam's third holiest site in Jerusalem, the Al-Aqsa mosque. Many in the Arab world believe that visiting the compound would legitimize Israel's rule over the city, but religious authorities at Al-Aqsa and Palestinian officials are now calling on Muslims to come, anyway.

As NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports, that's creating a lot of controversy within the Palestinian community.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: Last month, Egypt's grand mufti, one of the leading Islamic clerics in the country, came to pray at the Al-Aqsa mosque. The controversial visit sparked an outcry in the Arab world and he came under harsh criticism, but in Jerusalem, Palestinians are pushing for more high profile visits like that one.

AZZAM TAMIMI: (Foreign language spoken).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Azzam Tamimi is the administrative head of the Noble Sanctuary, the compound that houses the Al-Aqsa mosque.

TAMIMI: (Through translator) We have a very clear position on this. We welcome and encourage these visits by Islamic leaders, but Noble Sanctuary is under Israeli occupation and such visits lift the siege of this sacred place.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He believes the visits by Muslims bolster Palestinian claims to East Jerusalem, which Palestinians want as the capital of their future state. Tamimi says the Arab world boycott only serves Israel's interests.

TAMIMI: (Through translator) There are economic problems, social problems here. All that is because of the occupation, so having Muslims come here will help us economically and we'll see Palestinian hotels and shops flourish.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: For centuries, Muslim pilgrims visited Jerusalem on their way to Mecca and Medina, but that stopped after the 1967 Arab-Israeli War and Israel's annexation of East Jerusalem.

Israel has had its best year ever for tourism, most of them Christian and Jewish. Recently, there has been an uptick in Muslim visitors. A few thousand tourists, mostly from the Far East and India, have come, but it's a tiny fraction of the overall total.

Israel says it welcomes tourists from all faiths, but the Palestinian minister for religious affairs, Mahmoud Habash in Ramallah, says it's extremely difficult to get visas for dignitaries coming from the Arab world. He says half the members of a recent delegation from Bahrain would deny visas by the Israeli authorities. Still, Habash says, Muslims should at least try and come here.

MAHMOUD HABASH: (Through translator) This boycott only serves those who want to see Muslims in Jerusalem isolated and besieged. It only serves the Israeli occupation. It's a mistake that has to be corrected. Muslims need to reconnect with the Noble Sanctuary.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Not so, says independent Palestinian analyst, Hani al-Masri. He says the boycott needs to continue. He says simply dealing with the Israelis on the issue of getting a visa or a permit legitimizes the occupation.

HANI AL-MASRI: (Through translator) Israel has control over who comes to the Noble Sanctuary. Notice the photographs of the dignitaries when they come to the Al-Aqsa mosque. They're accompanied by Israeli security. I think we should first work on getting Palestinians permits to come and pray in Jerusalem rather than foreigners.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says these visits give the erroneous impression that Israel allows freedom of worship. He points to the fact that most Palestinians in the West Bank are not even allowed to enter Jerusalem.

Back in the old city just outside the gates of the mosque compound, most Palestinians we spoke with agreed with the boycott.

MITAL KUFR ANI: (Foreign language spoken).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Mital Kufr Ani says, I do not support the coming of Arabs and Muslims to the Noble Sanctuary while we are under occupation. Let them come, she says, when we are free.

Lourdes Garcia Navarro, NPR News.

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