Over 12,000 Muslim worshipers packed into the Temple Mount compound on Friday, according to estimates in Hebrew media, which noted a lack of police enforcement against the mass crowding, as Israel seeks to exit from a second national lockdown.
Friday prayers regularly attract large crowds to the flashpoint holy site in the Old City of Jerusalem, but this week brought particularly high numbers, as Muslims marked Mawlid, the birthdate of the Prophet Muhammad. In addition, the thousands at the Temple Mount also came to protest against French President Emmanuel Macron’s vow to protect the right to caricature the prophet.
Footage showed worshipers packed closely together, many of them not wearing masks.
The Jerusalem municipality issued a statement that appeared to blame police for failing to prevent the mass crowding. “In the midst of severe restrictions aimed at cutting the chain of infection, particularly in the Arab community, we are puzzled by the decision to allow thousands of people to gather at the Temple Mount. This is very irresponsible,” the city said.
Police shot back with a statement of their own, asserting that no decision had been made to ignore the massive gathering. “At the beginning of the incident, during the prayers, thousands of worshipers upheld the health guidelines. Only at the end of the prayer did tight gathering occur followed by a mass procession… leading police forces to enter the mosque plaza and disperse the crowd while arresting three suspects.”
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The protesters on Friday could be heard chanting, “With our souls and with our blood, we sacrifice for our prophet, Muhammad,” and what Israel Police described as “nationalist slogans.”
They also called Macron “the enemy of God.”
The protests come amid rising tensions between France and Muslim-majority nations, which flared up earlier this month when a young Muslim man beheaded a French schoolteacher who had shown caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in class.
Those images, republished by the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo to mark the opening of the trial for the deadly 2015 attack against the publication, have stirred the ire of Muslims across the world who consider depictions of the prophet blasphemous.
A series of attacks that French authorities have attributed to Muslim extremism ensued.
In September, the Islamic Waqf authority that administers the Temple Mount ordered it closed following a spike in coronavirus cases, only to seem to reverse course hours later and decide that it will remain open, over an apparent controversy as to whether Jewish visits would continue during the lockdown.
The closure was to coincide with a three-week lockdown to be imposed throughout Israel, which controls the entrances of the compound.
The Waqf is sponsored by Jordan, which is the custodian of the compound, known by Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif, or Holy Sanctuary, and as the Temple Mount by Jews as the site of the biblical Temples. It is the third holiest site in Islam and the holiest in Judaism.
The initial decision to close the Mount in September was only the second time that the Waqf decided to shutter the compound since Israel captured East Jerusalem in the Six Day War of 1967 — with the first time being in March, also in response to the pandemic.
Jews regularly enter the Temple Mount, although they are not allowed to pray in the compound. Palestinian officials decry these visits as “settler invasions.”
Israel has previously blocked access to the flashpoint site, which is a focus of Palestinian aspirations for statehood.
Agencies contributed to this report.