Jerusalem: For decades, the religious Jews who bucked a rabbinic ban and visited a contested holy site in Jerusalem where the ancient Jewish temple once stood were seen by many as a fanatic fringe.
But their cause is gaining support among both mainstream religious Jews and Israel`s government, much to the dismay of Muslim officials. Jewish visits to the politically sensitive compound are on the rise, and key Israeli lawmakers are lobbying to end a ban on Jewish prayer there.
Israel has also approached Jordan, which administers Muslim religious affairs at the site, about allowing limited Jewish worship there.
The visits have unnerved Muslim authorities, who fear that Israel is quietly trying to upset a fragile status quo and encroach upon the site. Similar tensions in the past have boiled over into deadly violence.
"If this happens, there will be lot of bloodshed," said Azzam Khatib, director general of the Waqf, Jordan`s Islamic authority that manages the Jerusalem holy site, about the possibility of organised Jewish prayers there.
The site, known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount, is ground zero in the territorial and religious conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbours. Revered as Islam`s third holiest spot, the site`s iconic gold-topped Dome of the Rock enshrines the rock from which Muslims believe the Prophet Mohammad ascended on a visit to heaven.
Jews believe the rock may be where the holiest part of the two ancient temples that stood about 2,000 years ago and where religious Jews pray a third temple will one day be built.
The site is so holy that Jews have traditionally refrained from praying on the hilltop, congregating instead at the adjacent Western Wall. In recent weeks, Israel`s chief rabbis, as well as the rabbi of the Western Wall, have issued directives urging people not to ascend the Temple Mount, arguing that Jews could inadvertently enter the holiest area of the once-standing temple, where it was forbidden to tread.
Attitudes among Orthodox Jews have been evolving, however, as archaeologists have weighed in about the precise location of the ancient temples and of places where Jews would be allowed to set foot.