- Published on Friday, 27 April 2012 09:50
It is hard for Muslims to visit the ancient Ccty of Jerualem, but more are trying.
JERUSALEM is Islam's third-holiest city, but since Israel's conquest of its gold-plated Dome of the Rock in 1967, Arabs have had to snub it. Israel bars most Palestinians, particularly those under 40, from making the pilgrimage, and most Muslim rulers block the remaining 300m Arabs by forbidding visits to what they deem to be enemy territory. Bereft of Arab custom, Saladin's bazaar peddles Jewish menorahs and Israeli army T-shirts instead. By night, the holy eastern half of the old city feels as locked down and shut off as the Gaza Strip.
At a recent conference in Qatar, Mahmoud Abbas, Palestine's president, tried to stop the charade. He asked the world's Arabs to show support by making visits. Egypt's grand mufti, Ali Gomaa, did so, along with a Jordanian prince, on April 18th. Among several others, a trendy young Muslim preacher from Yemen, Habib Ali al-Jifri, also heeded the call.
But Mr Abbas's plea and the mufti's gesture unleashed a torrent of indignation. Yusuf Qaradawi, Qatar's favoured preacher who is listened to by millions on television, issued a fatwa lampooning what he described as a "sell-out". A leader of Hamas, the Palestinians' main Islamist movement, used Facebook to castigate Mr Abbas for "normalising" relations with the enemy. Jerusalem's former mufti, Akrama Sabri, thundered that believers should be liberating the holy city, not helping its occupier. Monks at Jerusalem's Coptic Church joined in, warning that any of Egypt's 10m or so Christians caught flouting their pope's ban on visiting the old city would be refused communion.
But religious bans seem less off-putting than police ones have been in the past. As long as security services ruled the roost in Arab countries, a mere whiff of a record of dissidence deterred Arabs from applying for visas to Israel. But since the Arab spring, growing numbers of Arabs are taking a chance. Over 2,000 Copts made the pilgrimage from Egypt at Easter, says Israel's tourism ministry. Air Sinai, a subsidiary of Egypt's national airline, tripled its flights to Tel Aviv in the week before the annual Orthodox Holy Fire ceremony at Jesus's tomb.
Mr Qaradawi's fatwa has irked the city's Arab hoteliers. Many had upgraded their drab hotels after a surge of Muslim pilgrims from India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Pakistan. "He's shooting us in the foot," says one. "You need to populate al-Aqsa to save it."