For third straight week, Ramadan prayers at Temple Mount pass without incident

Waqf says 125,000 participated in al-Aqsa compound; Foreign Ministry places that number at just 50,000; police arrest 11 in Old City for alleged chants of incitement

Thousands of Muslim worshipers attend Friday prayers during Ramadan, at the Al-Aqsa compound atop the Temple Mount in Jerusalem's Old City, March 29, 2024. (Jamal Awad/Flash90)
Thousands of Muslim worshipers attend Friday prayers during Ramadan, at the Al-Aqsa compound atop the Temple Mount in Jerusalem's Old City, March 29, 2024. (Jamal Awad/Flash90)

Afternoon prayers on the third Friday of Ramadan ended at the Al-Aqsa Mosque atop the Jerusalem Old City Temple Mount, with the Israel Police reporting they passed without incident.

The Islamic Waqf, which administers the mosque compound, said 125,000 people took part in the prayers, slightly up from last week. But police put turnout in the tens of thousands and the Foreign Ministry said  “over 50,000” attended.

Along with the Ramadan prayers, hundreds of Christians participated in a customary Good Friday procession through the limestone walls of the Old City, commemorating one of the faith’s most sacred days with noticeably thinner crowds amid the ongoing Israel-Hamas war.

Police say they arrested 11 people in the Old City throughout the day, including several suspects for chants of “incitement and support for terrorism” following morning prayers at the Temple Mount.

Nevertheless, this marked the third consecutive Friday of the Muslim holy month during which mass prayers took place largely peacefully, despite fears of disturbances after the Hamas terror group had called on Palestinian worshipers to barricade themselves inside the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

At the beginning of the holy month, Hamas called on followers to “participate urgently in defending Al-Aqsa Mosque against the aggression that lurks in these critical times.”

Muslim worshipers standing behind a police barricade near the Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City, March 29, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

In past years during Ramadan, Palestinians have at times barricaded themselves inside the Al-Aqsa Mosque, some with explosives and rocks. Police operations to clear them out have often resulted in violence.

This year’s Ramadan came amid tinderbox tensions stemming from the ongoing war against Hamas in Gaza, triggered by the group’s shock October 7 attack, when thousands of terrorists rampaged through southern Israel, killing some 1,200 people and taking 253 hostages.

More than 32,000 Palestinians have been killed in the ensuing Gaza war launched by Israel, according to Hamas, which does not differentiate between civilians and combatants. At least 13,000 of those killed have been fighters, Israel says.

Police officers scuffled with some attendees at the Temple Mount entrance on the first night of Ramadan, but the holy site has been relatively peaceful since.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged ahead of Ramadan that the number of worshipers allowed to pray on the Temple Mount would be the same as in previous years and that no restrictions would be imposed on Arab Israelis, overruling the wishes of National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, an ultranationalist firebrand who oversees the Israel Police.

COGAT, the Israeli defense body in charge of civilian affairs in the West Bank, has ruled that Palestinian residents’ access to the site for Friday’s prayers will be limited to men over 55, women over 50, and children under 10.

The Temple Mount is the holiest place in Judaism, where two biblical Temples once stood, and the Al-Aqsa Mosque is the third-holiest shrine in Islam, making the site a central flashpoint of the Israeli-Arab conflict.

War-impacted Good Friday procession

As for the Good Friday procession, which normally draw thousands of foreign visitors, this year’s rendition was composed largely of locals. Most observers were Palestinian Christians, joined by some foreigners living in Jerusalem and a few undeterred tourists.

The traditional Good Friday procession passes along the Way of the Cross, or Via Dolorosa, the route believed to have been walked by Jesus to his crucifixion. Squads of Israeli police set up barricades along the path, rerouting shoppers in the Old City’s bustling Muslim quarter to make way for hundreds of pilgrims.

A young group of Palestinian Arab scouts led the day’s procession, past the 14 stations along the route, each marking an event that befell Jesus on his final journey. Hundreds of Palestinian Christians walked in their wake. Behind them was a small parade of the Franciscan religious order, composed mainly of foreigners who live in Jerusalem.

“We wait for this every year,” said Munira Kamar, a Palestinian Christian from the Old City, who watched the parade pass, waving hello to cross-bearers, who stopped to give her young daughter a kiss on the cheek. “Of course, this year we are unhappy because of the situation with the ongoing war.”

The procession’s final stations are inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where Jesus is believed to have been crucified and laid to rest before his resurrection on Easter. There, the impact of the war was clear: instead of the crowds who normally queue for hours in the church courtyard, entrance to the site was easy.

Christians walk the Way of the Cross procession that commemorates Jesus Christ’s crucifixion on Good Friday, in the Old City of Jerusalem, Friday, March 29, 2024. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

The city’s streets were noticeably devoid of Palestinian Christians from the West Bank, who normally flock to the Holy City for the Easter festivities. Since Oct. 7, Palestinian worshippers have needed special permission to cross checkpoints into Jerusalem.

Despite the thinned crowds, shopkeepers, whose heavy metal doors are usually closed on Fridays, threw them open in for tourists seeking Catholic memorabilia. But interested shoppers were few and far between.

“Comparing last year’s Easter festivities with this year is like light and day. Nobody’s here. Most of the people are locals,” said Fayaz Dakkak, a Palestinian storeowner whose family first opened the shop in 1942. His shop stood empty. “Usually people are joyful today and kids are excited. But when you compare children here who have water and food and a family to what’s happening in Gaza, how can you be happy?”

An estimated 50,000 Christian Palestinians live in the West Bank and Jerusalem, according to the U.S. State Department’s international religious freedom report for 2022. Approximately 1,300 Christians lived in Gaza, it said. Some Christians are also citizens of Israel. Many Palestinian Christians live in diaspora communities.

A few tourists braved the day. Carmen Ros, a lawyer who lives in Jerusalem, had managed to corral a group of pilgrims from Spain to visit the country for a religious tour. The group rested in the shade outside the church.

Christians walk the Way of the Cross procession that commemorates Jesus Christ’s crucifixion on Good Friday, in the Old City of Jerusalem, Friday, March 29, 2024. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

“They were afraid of the situation at first,” she said, “but I told them here in Jerusalem, it’s safe, we don’t have violence. We are close to Gaza, but the Christian people are not the target of terrorism.”

The celebrations coincided with the third Friday in the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, with worshippers once again flocking to the revered Al-Aqsa mosque for prayer. Despite fears the ongoing war would spark clashes at the revered Al-Aqsa mosque, the month has so far passed peacefully under tight Israeli security.

Sister Harriet Kabaije, a pilgrim from Uganda who moved to Jerusalem three weeks ago to live in a monastery, said she was holding the people of Gaza in her prayers. She said she believed that peace could be achieved in the region.

“Many people think that the war here is natural,” she said. “But when Jesus was in Bethlehem, it was peaceful. We know that people are suffering in Gaza so we carry them in our prayers and pray that peace can return to this land,” she said.

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