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Saudi cleric known for Auschwitz visit, interfaith dialogue gives main hajj sermon

Sheikh Mohammed al-Issa speaks of Muslim obligation to bring hearts together; Israeli commentator says Saudis’ choice of ‘Zionist imam’ is ‘significant signal’

Dr. Mohammed bin Abdul Karim al-Issa, the head of the Muslim World League, speaks at the Nimrah Mosque in Mecca during the annual Hajj pilgrimage, July 8, 2022. (SPA -- Saudi state news agency)
Dr. Mohammed bin Abdul Karim al-Issa, the head of the Muslim World League, speaks at the Nimrah Mosque in Mecca during the annual Hajj pilgrimage, July 8, 2022. (SPA -- Saudi state news agency)

A cleric known for visiting Auschwitz and for his involvement in interfaith dialogue gave the main sermon at the height of the annual hajj pilgrimage at the Nimrah Mosque on Mount Arafat outside Mecca on Friday, after being chosen earlier in the week for the role by Saudi Arabia’s de factor ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The decision to give the honor to Sheikh Dr. Mohammed bin Abdul Karim al-Issa, the head of the Muslim World League, was read by veteran Channel 12 Arab affairs analyst Ehud Ya’ari as “a significant signal” from Saudi Arabia regarding its attitude towards normalization with Israel. Ya’ari said Al-Issa, who has invited rabbis to Saudi Arabia and has visited Yeshiva University in New York, is known in the country as the “Zionist imam.”

The speech came days ahead of US President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel and Saudi Arabia this week, and amid expectations that the trip will feature steps toward a further warming in ties between the two countries. Jerusalem and Riyadh do not have formal relations but appear to be moving closer amid shared concerns over Iran.

In his sermon on Friday, Al-Issa spoke of the five pillars of Islam, and urged acceptance, harmony, and compassion. He said Islam’s teachings were strictly humanitarian, “whose standards do not become compromised and whose foundations do not become altered,” according to the Saudi Gazette, which carried the full speech.

“Among the values taught by Islam are avoiding all that leads to dissent, animosity, or division; and instead, ensuring that our interactions are dominated by harmony and compassion,” he said.

“Islam has an encompassing spirit whose goodness extends to all of humanity,” added Al-Issa, a former Saudi justice minister.

Muslim pilgrims move on their way to perform Friday prayers at Nimrah Mosque in Arafat, on the second day of the annual hajj pilgrimage, near the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Friday, July 8, 2022. (AP/Amr Nabil)

“Each individual among you should love what is good for all people, and strive to bring their hearts together,” he went on.

Prayers on Mount Arafat are the highlight of the annual pilgrimage, capped this year at one million people including 850,000 from abroad. The hajj, usually one of the world’s largest annual religious gatherings, is among the five pillars of Islam and must be undertaken by all Muslims with the means at least once in their lives.

Al-Issa has been intensely involved in interfaith activities, in particular in outreach to Jewish communities, and has been vocal against antisemitism.

An aerial view shows Muslim pilgrims gathering atop Mount Arafat, also known as Jabal al-Rahma (Mount of Mercy), southeast of the holy city of Mecca, during the height of the Hajj pilgrimage, on July 8, 2022. (AFP)

Al-Issa was praised by Israel when he led a Muslim delegation alongside the CEO of the American Jewish Committee, David Harris, to the Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial in Poland in January 2020.

“To be here, among the children of Holocaust survivors and members of the Jewish and Islamic communities, is both a sacred duty and a profound honor,” Al-Issa said during his visit.

“The unconscionable crimes to which we bear witness today are truly crimes against humanity. That is to say, a violation of us all, an affront to all of God’s children.”

Interfaith delegation to Auschwitz including Muslim World League head Mohammed al-Issa, center-right with white head covering, January 23, 2020. (Yaakov Schwartz/ Times of Israel)

The sheikh also took part in an event at Yeshiva University in New York City last October, called “Jews and Muslims: A Look Toward the Future,” in which he shared a stage with university president Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman.

“We may have differences, but we must have love for one another and come together,” al-Issa told those in attendance with the help of a translator.

When asked by the rabbi why such an interfaith event had not been held before, the sheikh jokingly responded because he “didn’t receive an invitation before.”

In 2019, the sheikh spoke at an event at the Park East Synagogue in New York, alongside Rabbi Arthur Schneier, president of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation, a prominent interfaith organization. The two agreed at the time to coordinate the efforts of MWL and the Appeal of Conscience Foundation to protect religious sites and worshippers, of all religions, from violent attacks.

Dr. Mohammad Abdul Karim Al-Issa, the secretary-general of the Muslim World League, making his first ever visit to a US synagogue, speaks at the Park East Synagogue in New York as Rabbi Arthur Schneier, president and founder of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation, a senior rabbi at the synagogue and a Holocaust survivor, looks on, on Monday, April 29, 2019. (Diane Bondareff/AP Images for Appeal of Conscience Foundation)

Al-Issa’s sermon on Friday came amid a flurry of reports on growing ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel, with Defense Minister Benny Gantz hinting of a possible “breakthrough” during US President Joe Biden’s upcoming visit.

Biden is due to land in Israel on July 13 for a two day-visit, before departing to Saudi Arabia. He has recently said that one of his trip’s purposes will be to “deepen Israel’s integration in the region,” raising speculation about the possible normalization of relations with the Gulf state or at least significant steps in that direction. Analysts have generally assessed that normalization with Israel will not be made possible as long as King Salman, 86, still reigns.

The Abraham Accords, a joint peace declaration initially signed on September 15, 2020, officially normalized diplomatic relations between Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Israel. In December 2020, Morocco and Israel inked a normalization agreement, establishing full diplomatic relations. Then, in January 2021, Sudan signed on to the accords, symbolically declaring its intention to advance normalization with Israel.

President Donald Trump, center, with from left, Bahrain Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Trump, and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, during the Abraham Accords signing ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House, Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

On Thursday, Hebrew media reported that the Somali government is set to consult parliament on the possibility of establishing diplomatic relations with Israel.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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