Report and photos by Alessandro Di Maio
Jesusalem. The first Friday prayers of the Muslim holy month ended uneventfully today. Although over 90,000 Muslims participated in the religious event in the Old City of Jerusalem, the crowds dispersed as soon as the prayers were over.
Since early this morning, Jerusalem has been witnessing intense religious activity. While Jews were preparing for Sabbath and Christians were praying the Friday prayers, the local Muslim community was woken up by sounds of calls to pray issued by several minarets and speakers all around the walled Jerusalem.
About 10,000 Muslim believers were expected to come to the Temple Mount for the first Friday prayers of this Ramadan. The latter is the holiest month for Muslims as it’s when the first verse of the Koran was revealed to the Islamic Prophet Muhammad.
The majority came from the West Bank with private coaches. Ramadan is in fact the only opportunity that many Palestinian Muslims living in the West Bank have to visit the Temple Mount and the Al-Aqsa Mosque.
In preparation, Qalandia, the closest checkpoint to Jerusalem, was reinforced with more soldiers, as was the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, and the Damascus Gate in East Jerusalem. Dozens of traffic police and policemen were posted along the roads.
“In Qalandia we had to wait for more than two hours before crossing the Wall,” said a old Palestinian man who spent almost two days travelling from Nablus. “It was a mess, it was really crowded,” said another elderly Muslim.
Yesterday afternoon, there were a few moments of tensions in a suq close to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, namely, at the 5th Station of Via Dolorosa in the Muslim Quarter. Here Palestinians are neighbours with Jewish Orthodox so the tension is always in the air.
A witness said that a child was mistreated by one of the security guards that was protecting the Jewish settlers. “At that point – continued the witness – Palestinians screamed to the guards and people started to fight”.
When the police and the soldiers arrived, the situation tensed. A few policemen were confronted with handfuls of Palestinians and young Jewish Orthodox throwing stones and rubble from their balconies. But the situation calmed down.
After the small riot, the Jerusalem police published a statement saying that “policemen will prevent any attempt made to disrupt order and security”. But even if the Israeli authorities hadn’t announced restrictions forbidding men under 50-years-old and women under 45 to enter the Holy City, today was quiet and with no disturbances meaning that everybody had the possibility to enter and pray in the Al-Aqsa Mosque.
“When there is no tension, we allow everyone to enter the Temple Mount, except non-Muslims and the tourists,” declared an Israeli policeman stationed in front of the Damascus Gate.
When the prayers were over, thousands of people moved peacefully from the Al-Aqsa Mosque to the Damascus Gate where merchants were ready to sell goods and thieves to steal the Muslim pilgrims.
“Ramadan is a golden month for many people,” said the owner of a small supermarket in front of the Herod’s Gate. “Merchants make a lot of money and thanks to the presence of many pilgrims from all over Jerusalem and the West Bank, the situation is attractive to thieves. They should refrain from stealing as well but the truth – he continued – is that during Ramadan the main topic is business, more than religion, conflict, Gaza Strip and peace negotiations”.
Muslims around the world began the annual month-long fast of Ramadan on Wednesday, during which they refrain from eating, drinking, smoking and sexual relations from sunrise to sunset. Even though this first Friday was peaceful, the same security precautions will be taken next week for the second Friday prayers of Ramadan 2010.