Scuffles as Muslims protest over holy-site renovation

Anti-riot police scuffled with demonstrators in Cairo as Muslims marched in Jordan and Lebanon to express outrage over Israeli renovation work near Islam’s third-holiest shine.

The work at a compound in Jerusalem’s Old City that is home to the golden-capped Dome of the Rock shrine and al-Aqsa mosque – sacred for Muslims, who believe the place is where the Prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven – has angered many throughout the Muslim world.

Israeli authorities have promised the dig, to replace a centuries-old ramp damaged in a 2004 snowstorm, would not damage the compound, about 60 metres away.

However, as work started this week, it drew fierce protests and accusations that Israel was plotting to harm Muslim holy sites.

Earlier today, hundreds of Israeli police stormed the shrine in Jerusalem, firing stun grenades and tear gas to disperse thousands of Muslims who hurled stones and bottles in protest.

The anger spread to other parts of the Muslim world as well. In the Egyptian capital, thousands of helmeted anti-riot police beat and chased dozens of protesters into side alleys and streets to prevent them staging a mass demonstration at Al-Azhar Mosque following prayers.

Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s oldest and most influential Islamic group, called for the rally to denounce the Israeli renovation. But before prayers started, security forces deployed to the streets surrounding Al-Azhar, the Sunni Arab world’s most powerful institution.

Police prevented worshippers from getting inside the mosque, according to reporters and members of the Muslim Brotherhood.

A police official said that about 10 people were detained but would be released. The official said there were skirmishes but no serious injuries.

Abdel Moneim Mohammed of the Muslim Brotherhood said police rounded up many protesters close to Al-Azhar and kept them inside police trucks, stationed around the mosque.

“They snatched hundreds and put them inside big police trucks, we don’t know if they will ever get out,” he said.

Gamal Nassar, a leading Brotherhood member, said police stopped him en route to Al-Azhar and ordered him to go pray at a nearby mosque instead. A short time later, about 100 protesters chanting anti-Israeli slogans also were rounded up by police at El-Hussein mosque, Nassar said.

In southern Lebanon, about 500 Palestinians who support the moderate Fatah party staged a sit-in at the Ein el-Hilweh refugee camp. Many carried pictures of the al-Aqsa and chanted anti-Israeli slogans. Nearby, supporters of the militant Hamas group held a separate sit-in at the camp. Hundreds of Islamic fundamentalists also protested in the Lebanese port city of Sidon.

In Syria, some 3,000 Palestinians marched in the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp near Damascus in protest of the Israeli excavations. They carried Palestinian flags and pictures of the al-Aqsa mosque, and chanted anti-Israel slogans.

Meanwhile in the Jordanian capital, Amman, about 2,000 worshippers marched in protest of the Israeli dig. The protesters were mostly from Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood and several opposition leftist parties.

The demonstrators, most of whom were affiliated with Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood and several opposition leftist parties, carried Jordanian, Palestinian and Brotherhood flags and shouted slogans urging the government to close down the Israeli Embassy in Amman and dismiss its ambassador.

“Al-Aqsa is ours and their temple,” chanted the protesters. “The gates of al-Aqsa are of iron and nobody can open them except the martyrs.”

The noisy protest ended without any clashes reported.

Jordan’s King Abdullah II has called the Israeli dig “a threat to the foundations of the al-Aqsa mosque,” and warned of potential “negative” consequences for the peace process. Jordan’s ambassador to Israel also protested to the Israeli Foreign Ministry over the work, demanding it be stopped.

To Jordanians, the site of the dig has an added significance. It is part of East Jerusalem, which Jordan ruled until Israel captured it and the adjacent West Bank in the 1967 Middle East War.

In 1988, Abdullah’s late father – King Hussein – renounced his country’s claim to the West Bank, but maintained Jordan’s custodianship over Christian and Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem.