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May 22, 2016 | 13:00 GMT

8 mins read

Vying to Access the Middle East's Holy Sites

Middle East Analyst
Toba Hellerstein
Middle East Analyst
A man looks toward the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem on April 24.

Religion seeks to transcend the boundaries of the physical world, but holy sites are confined within political borders by necessity. The interplay of the spiritual and physical can affect the power dynamics between the states that administer holy sites and the religious communities that worship there. Religious locations can be, in some ways, a double-edged sword for the countries that control them: On one hand, they grant legitimacy to their protectors, but on the other, they often ensure that their rulers are held to higher spiritual standards. But the goals of the pious do not always align with the political and security imperatives of a nation.

The Middle East has no shortage of significant religious landmarks, but some of the world's most famous can be found in Israel, the Palestinian territories and Saudi Arabia. One need only look at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem or the Kaaba in Mecca to see the geopolitical strife that can arise when different religions and denominations — not to mention nationalities — claim rightful ownership to the same place of worship. Balancing the interests of these many and varied groups is no easy feat, and all too often conflicts over local politics, economics and security become entangled with the broader struggle for access to the holiest places on Earth.

Jerusalem: Where the World's Biggest Religions Collide

No place better demonstrates this rivalry than Jerusalem. A city that both unites the Abrahamic faiths and is riven by competition among them, Jerusalem is contested by the Jewish state of Israel and the largely Muslim Palestinian people. Though Israel acquired Jerusalem from Jordan following the Six-Day War in 1967, most of the Islamic world insists that Jerusalem belongs to Muslims. After all, the Al-Aqsa Mosque — the third-holiest site in Islam — is located within the city's Temple Mount complex and was built where the angel Gabriel transported the Prophet Mohammed from Mecca, during what is known as the Night Journey. From that spot, the prophet traveled to heaven to see Allah. 

But just as the Palestinians' desired state must feature Jerusalem as its capital, so too do Israelis demand it serve as the center of the Jewish state. Jerusalem's Old City contains the Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism. It is the location of the First and Second temples and the place where Jews and Christians alike believe that Abraham fulfilled God's test of devotion by his willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac. (Muslims believe a similar story, with the exception that Ismail was the son to be sacrificed.) Jewish worshippers around the world pray toward the Temple Mount, and Jews congregate at the Western (or Wailing) Wall just to be near it. Solomon's Temple also plays a crucial role in Christianity, given its importance to the story of Jesus' crucifixion, as do many other sites in Jerusalem. Christians today, however, feature less in the dispute over the city because of their comparatively neutral stance on the issue.


The Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem. (THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images)

Jerusalem's shared nature makes its administration an incredibly thorny subject. After Israel gained control of the city, it chose to uphold the standards that had been in place under Ottoman and Jordanian rule determining who could access holy sites. These laws prohibited Jews from accessing the Temple Mount for prayer, which Israel adhered to for the sake of political legitimacy and stability. In fact, after the Six Day War ended, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan immediately removed the Israeli flag that the country's paratroopers had placed on the Temple Mount. His decision was not without precedent. During the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, when it seemed as though the nascent state of Israel would conquer the Old City, David Ben-Gurion ordered the commander of the Jewish paramilitary Haganah to "prepare a special force, loyal and disciplined ... that will use without mercy a machine gun against any Jew who tries to rob or desecrate a holy place, Christian or Muslim."

In the years since, Israel has struggled to balance its duties to administer the world's most contested holy site with its imperative to control a restive Muslim population. To further complicate matters, an Islamic religious body jointly run by Jordanians and Palestinians (known as the waqf) governs the Temple Mount, despite the fact that Israel controls the territory itself. Since upsetting the status quo on the Temple Mount would pose too great a risk to Israeli security, preserving Muslims' access to the site while banning Jewish prayer there continues to be a key component of Israeli policy. But many Jews oppose the government's choice to put political and security concerns ahead of religious mandates, and the country's Supreme Court has had to quash numerous efforts to change the policy in the name of "maintaining order and public security."

Yet the city has been anything but tranquil. Muslims' fears of losing access to the Temple Mount have led, on many occasions, to riots. Moreover, many attribute the start of the Second Intifada, or Palestinian uprising, to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's visit to the holy site in September 2000. While there, Sharon declared that the Temple Mount would "remain in the hands of Israel and that it is the right of every Jew to visit the Temple Mount." Statements such as these, which attempt to use Jerusalem's religious significance to achieve political ends, risk upsetting the careful balance between religion and geopolitics that Israel has worked so hard to construct.

Mecca: Weighing the Burden of Honor

Holy sites do not have to be claimed by multiple religions to polarize their surrounding communities, either. Mecca, the holiest site in Islam, is a case in point. Muslims, who number around 1.6 billion worldwide, are obligated to travel to the Saudi city at least once in their lives to complete the annual hajj, or pilgrimage. It is one of the five pillars upon which Islam is based. And just as Jews pray toward Jerusalem's Temple Mount, Muslims pray toward Mecca's Kaaba — a tall, cube-shaped building 13 meters (43 feet) tall housed in the Masjid al-Haram mosque. Non-Muslims are not allowed to enter the city.

Muslim pilgrims circle around the Kaaba in Mecca. (MOHAMMED AL-SHAIKH/AFP/Getty Images)

With such religious significance, Mecca is considered the crowning jewel of the House of Saud and the source of the Saudi monarchy's legitimacy. (It is no coincidence that one of the Saudi king's titles is "custodian of the two holy mosques," one of which is Mecca.) The unification of the Arabian Peninsula was predicated on the emergence of a ruling family that would protect the site's Islamic integrity — a mandate that the House of Saud fulfilled after it seized the area's disjointed tribal territories in the 1920s. Today, the privilege of safeguarding Mecca brings honor, and considerable revenue, to the royal family.

But such glory comes at a steep price, particularly as Saudi Arabia continues to suffer the effects of low oil prices and a heavy social welfare burden. Safeguarding the state's control over Mecca, which it briefly lost in 1979 during the Grand Mosque Siege, requires costly security measures, as does ensuring the safety of pilgrims traveling to the city. Over the past few decades, stampedes have become a growing concern as more and more people have streamed into Mecca. Last year, some 1,000 pilgrims were killed in a stampede near the city during the hajj. A few months later, Iran suspended flights to Saudi Arabia after reports emerged that two Iranian boys had been sexually abused in an airport in Jeddah during Umra, a minor pilgrimage that can take place year-round.

Despite these issues, Saudi Arabia has attempted to leverage its stewardship of Islam's holiest site to secure a place at the head of the Muslim community and the Middle East. When Riyadh announced its alliance with 34 Muslim nations against terrorism in December 2015, it did so based on its role as a protector of Islam. But the same alliance, which comprises countries that are largely Sunni, shows the extended polarization within the religion and the region as countries take sides between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran, Riyadh's historical rival.

The widening fissures between the two camps have generated concern among Iranians that their access to Mecca could be restricted. Tehran has already claimed that Riyadh's policies will prevent Iranian pilgrims from completing the hajj in September. A dialogue to resolve the dispute has been opened, and an Iranian delegation visited Saudi Arabia for four days in April to continue negotiations. But as tension continues to rise, Riyadh may find it difficult to separate its religious obligations from its political and security objectives. If it fails, Saudi Arabia's legitimacy as both a representative of the Muslim community and the steward of Islam's holiest sites will be called into question.

And so, although control of the world's religious sites is determined by the political borders surrounding them, it would be a mistake to assume that governments can rule such landmarks unchecked. History is fraught with examples of states denying access to holy sites for political reasons, but similar motives often ensure that states protect it as well. And as countries continue to navigate the complicated relationship between spiritual and national responsibility, the question of who can access religious areas, and how much, will become increasingly difficult to answer. 

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