Ali Gomaa, Egypt's grand mufti, has paid a surprise visit to Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa mosque on Wednesday, breaking with decades of opposition by Muslim leaders on traveling to areas under Israeli control.
Gomaa wrote on his Twitter account that his visit was in solidarity with the Palestinians' claim to the eastern part of the disputed city, under Israel's control since it captured the city in the 1967 Six Day War.
The mufti prayed in the Al-Aqsa mosque, Islam's third holiest site, during his two-hour-long visit.
Gomaa was accompanied by Jordanian Prince Ghazi bin Mohamed, president of the Al-Bayt Foundation; Sheikh Mohamed Hassan, the mufti of Jerusalem and the preacher of the Al-Aqsa Mosque; Sheikh Abdel Azim Sahlab, chairman of the Board of the Islamic Waqf of Jerusalem; and Azzam al-Khatib, director of Jerusalem's Religious Endowments (Waqf) Foundation.
Khatib said that Gomaa “came for a religious visit to Al-Aqsa mosque” along with bin Mohamed, King Abdullah II's cousin and adviser on religious issues.
Khatib added that the visit has no political connotations, describing it as a purely “religious mission.”
Gomaa called the trip an unofficial visit, clearly an attempt to diffuse criticism he is already facing for breaking an unofficial ban by Muslim clerics and most Egyptian professional and private associations on visiting Israel or Israeli-controlled Palestinian territories. The Egyptian Coptic Church and most Muslim clerics around the region generally follow the ban.
Al-Masry Al-Youm quoted the mufti's spokesman, Ibrahim Negm, as saying that the visit was organized by the Jordanian royal family to inaugurate an Islamic research center. He added, “This is not political. It is a scientific and not a political visit.”
The sister paper of Egypt Independent reported that the visit responds to an invitation from the Jordanian Al-Bayt Foundation to inaugurate the Imam al-Ghazali Chair of Islamic Studies in his capacity as a trustee.
“The chair was established by King Abdullah of Jordan,” said Gomaa’s spokesman, explaining that Gomaa entered without visas or stamps from Israel, as the mosque is managed by the Jordanian authorities.
“Our mufti supports the Palestinian cause and completely rejects all forms of normalization with the occupation forces,” he said.
Egypt and Israel signed a peace treaty in 1979, but most Egyptians view the Jewish state as their nation's archenemy, shunning dealing with Israeli authorities.
In Amman, Jordan's Ministry of Religious Endowments and Islamic affairs said the visit was in accordance with a command from the Prophet Mohamed to visit three mosques on pilgrimage — Al-Aqsa and the mosques in Mecca and Medina, Saudi Arabia.
It added that Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas had “called on Muslims everywhere to visit Al-Aqsa and revitalize it by filling it with worshippers and pilgrims.”
“This trip … is seen as an effort to encourage Muslims who are able to visit Al-Aqsa Mosque, one of Islam's three holiest sites, and Islam's first Qiblah (direction of prayer),” it said.
It comes after Qatar-based Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian, said in a religious edict (fatwa) last month that Muslims should not visit Jerusalem “because it requires dealing with Zionist embassies to obtain visas.”
“Such visits might also give legitimacy to the occupation and could be seen as normalization,” Qaradawi said in March.
His fatwa has drawn the ire of Palestinian Religious Endowments Minister Mahmoud al-Habbash, saying it “contradicts the Quran and the Prophet's teachings.”
“The fatwa serves Israeli policies that seek to isolate Jerusalem and Palestinians, who should be supported,” Habbash said.
Earlier this month, King Abdullah’s half-brother, Prince Hashim, paid a similar visit to Jerusalem. Also, Jordan's Interior Minister Mohamed Raud visited the Holy City this week.
The kingdom's powerful opposition Islamists have denounced such visits.
“In line with Islamic edicts issued by respected clerics and consultations with Christian religious leaders, we consider these trips acts of normalization that serve the schemes of the enemy,” said Hamzeh Mansour, chief of the Islamic Action Front, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, on the party's website.
“Mosque preachers, thinkers, intellectuals and journalists should intensify their efforts to warn the public against the dangerous risks behind such visits, which must not continue,” added Mansour, who also heads an anti-normalization committee.
Jordan, which has a 1994 peace treaty with Israel, is the custodian of Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem.
One of the most sensitive places in the Middle East, the mosque is referred to by Muslims as al-Haram al-Sharif. The mosque compound is known to Jews as the Temple Mount and is revered as Judaism's most sacred site.
Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood spokesperson Mahmoud Ghozlan, said the visit was “very strange.”
“Muslim clerics have taken a position that Jerusalem should not be visited because of the continued Israeli occupation,” Ghozlan said. “He violated the opinion of the majority of clerics. Why, I don't know.”
Khatib praised the visit: “We consider these visits support for the Al-Aqsa mosque. These visits help the Palestinian residents of Jerusalem to be steadfast in the city. It was a religious visit to the Al-Aqsa Mosque and lets the world know that it is an Islamic, Arab site.”