The Islamic Waqf decided on Sunday to close the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem to the public for a limited period of time, as the coronavirus continues to spread among Israelis and Palestinians.
The mount is revered by both Muslims and Jews and is a site where large numbers of Palestinians often gather, especially for Friday prayers. It has long been a flash point between Israelis and Palestinians.
“The Waqf council decided to temporarily suspend the arrival of worshipers through all of the blessed Al-Aqsa Mosque’s gates as of dawn on March 23, 2020, responding affirmatively to the recommendations of religious and medical authorities,” the council said in a statement, adding that the call to prayer by way of the site’s minarets would continue.
The council also said: “The Waqf council feels bitter about taking this decision, but it was compelled to do so to preserve citizens’ lives and health.”
The Waqf is backed by the Jordanian Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs, which administers Al-Aqsa.
The council also said that all of the Waqf’s employees would continue to work “as usual” and would perform prayers at Al-Aqsa.
The decision to shut Al-Aqsa to the public comes after many people prayed in close proximity to each other last Friday morning — in an apparent violation of Israeli government directives.
Last week, Israeli authorities banned gatherings larger than 10 people, and instructed people to stay in their homes except under a handful of circumstances.
The move to close the site also follows decisions by many Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, to close mosques around their countries.
The council called on worshipers to perform prayers at their homes to “preserve their health and the Jerusalemite community’s well-being.”
More than 900 people in Israel have tested positive for the coronavirus, while upwards of 55 have been diagnosed with it in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Both Israeli and Palestinian officials have expressed concerns that their respective health systems could be overwhelmed if a widespread breakout occurs in their societies with high numbers of ill persons requiring ventilators to breathe.