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Last Updated: Wednesday, 20 August, 2003, 19:09 GMT 20:09 UK
Flashpoint Jerusalem site reopens
By Jane Little
BBC religious affairs correspondent

One of the holiest sites in Jerusalem, which has been closed to non-Muslims for most of the past three years, has reopened, causing tensions with Muslim leaders.

On Wednesday morning, more than 150 Jews visited the contested site revered by Jews as the Temple Mount and by Muslims as Haram al-Sharif or the Noble Sanctuary.

Two Orthodox Jews guarded by an Israeli policeman walk past the Dome of the Rock, 20 August
The site is sacred to Jews and Muslims
The reopening comes less than 24 hours after a suicide bomber killed about 20 people on a bus packed with Jews returning from the Western Wall, which borders the Temple Mount.

The religious and political significance of this site in the centre of the Old City cannot be overestimated.

It is at the heart of disputes over Jerusalem, the most seemingly intractable part of the stumbling peace process.

In September 2000, Ariel Sharon - then Israel's opposition leader - visited the hilltop to underscore Israel's claim to sovereignty.

The visit sparked violence that escalated into the armed intifada.

It also prompted the Muslim authority - or Waqf - that oversees the site, to close it to non-Muslims.

The Israeli Government has put pressure on the Waqf to allow visitors back in and the site was briefly reopened by the police earlier this summer before they closed it again after tensions with local Muslims.

Some say any decision to reopen the compound to visitors should be accompanied by a lifting of restrictions on Muslims
Jerusalem's police chief, Mickey Levy, said the decision to reopen it had been made before Tuesday's suicide bombing.

But the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Sheikh Ekrima Sabri, criticised the move for being made without prior approval of the Waqf.

Some say any decision to reopen the compound to visitors should be accompanied by a lifting of restrictions on Muslims.

Palestinians from outside Jerusalem who are under the age of 40 are currently barred from entering.

The compound which covers 35 acres includes the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock.

Muslims regard the entire area as a mosque and consider it the third holiest site in Islam after Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia.

But it sits on the holiest site in Judaism where 3,000 years ago Solomon built his temple.

Destroyed, rebuilt and destroyed again, devout Jews believe that the temple will be rebuilt during the age of the coming of the promised messiah.

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