The US State Department’s annual report on religious freedoms, released on Thursday, focused much attention on Jerusalem, calling for the Israeli government to strengthen the ban on Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount.
“The U.S. Ambassador and embassy officers spoke with government officials and Knesset leaders about the importance of maintaining the status quo at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif and not escalating tensions through provocative actions or statements,” the report read, referring to the Temple Mount by its Arabic name.
The “status quo” is an understanding among religious communities with respect to religious sites in Jerusalem and Bethlehem and was first established by the Ottoman Empire in the 18th century. Under the Muslim Ottomans, Jerusalem was divided into four quarters and the Temple Mount became a Muslim holy place, ignoring the Jewish connection to the site. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre as well as other various Christian sites were recognized as belonging to the Christian world.
“Despite the Israeli government’s policy prohibiting non-Muslim worship at the site, some Jewish groups escorted by Israeli police at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount performed religious acts such as prayers and prostration,” the report stated.
Though Israeli law mandates religious equality, the Israeli police cite security concerns and the possibility of a violent Muslim reaction to justify preventing non-Muslim prayer on the Temple Mount.
Though also relevant to Christians, the ban on prayer focuses on Jews. Hours for Jewish visitation to the site are limited and Jews may only enter the site in small groups. Visitors undergo rigorous security checks and religious items are prohibited. Jewish groups are accompanied by both Israeli police and Waqf (Muslim authority) guards who ensure that visitors do not pray or show any signs of devotion.
Muslims normally have unrestricted access to the site, though during outbreaks of violence, the Israeli police will restrict entry to women and older men. Muslims do not undergo any security checks at the site.
“Incidents of attempted Jewish prayer at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount increased from previous years, according to local NGOs, media, and Jewish Temple Mount movement groups, and occurred on a near-weekly basis. During Jewish holidays, such as Passover, Tisha B’Av, and Sukkot, tens of Jewish Temple Mount activists engaged in prayer on the site. In most cases, Israeli police acted to prevent them from praying and removed them, but in other cases, some of which were documented on social media in photos and videos, the police appeared not to notice the acts of prayer.”
The report referred to Judea, Samaria, and east Jerusalem as “occupied territories”. These areas are part of Biblical Israel but are considered disputed territories under some interpretations of international law.
The report described Palestinian terrorist attacks as possible violations of religious freedoms.
“Because religion and ethnicity were often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize much of this violence as being solely based on religious identity,” the report explained.
While calling for a total Muslim monopoly on the Temple Mount, the report reproached Israel for not allowing non-Orthodox prayer in the Orthodox prayer section of the Western Wall.
“In meetings with government officials, embassy officers stressed the importance of religious pluralism and respect for non-Orthodox streams of Judaism. The Israeli government did not implement a cabinet agreement reached in January to establish a Reform, Conservative, and mixed gender prayer platform along a separate portion of the Western Wall,” the report said. “Reform, Conservative, and women’s Jewish groups including some Orthodox Jewish women’s groups lobbied for the proposal, whereas ultra-Orthodox Jewish religious leaders and political figures continued to oppose the plan.”
The report also praised the efforts of US Ambassador David Friedman to promote interfaith understanding.
“Embassy-hosted events, including an interfaith Ramadan iftar and an interfaith Thanksgiving dinner, promoted the reduction of tensions between religious communities and an increase in interreligious communication and partnership within society by bringing together representatives of many faith communities to advance shared goals and exchange knowledge and experience,” the report said.