Jerusalem            -       Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque compound, Islam’s third holiest site, reopened on Sunday after being closed for over two months because of the coronavirus pandemic. Dozens of worshippers in protective masks were let into the compound before the first prayers of the day, held in cool and windy conditions.

Chanting “God is greatest, we will protect Al-Aqsa with our soul and blood”, the worshippers who gathered in front of the large wooden doors were welcomed by mosque director Omar al-Kiswani, who thanked them for their patience. The prayers followed a fraught previous day in annexed east Jerusalem, where the compound is located. Israeli police on Saturday shot dead a disabled Palestinian they mistakenly thought was armed, prompting furious condemnation from the Palestinians.

The religious site, which houses Al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock, had closed its doors in March as part of measures to limit the spread of COVID-19. As part of ongoing efforts to tackle the virus, worshippers’ temperatures were taken and staff distributed masks to those entering the compound. Tape inside the mosque and on the stones outside marked where people should pray at a safe distance.  Israeli soldiers were stationed at the gates to the site, which has often been a flashpoint in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Muslims believe the Prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven there, and it is Islam’s third holiest site, after Mecca and Medina.

Meanwhile, it is the holiest site for Jews, who refer to it as the Temple Mount, the reputed location of two biblical temples, the second of which was destroyed in 70 AD.