JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Muslims gathered in smaller-than-usual numbers at al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem on Friday after religious authorities decided to keep Islam’s third holiest site open for prayers but enact health measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Thousands of worshippers, some wearing face masks, were asked to keep their distance from one another as they filed into the Old City compound known to Muslims as al-Haram al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary) and to Jews as the Temple Mount.
In Israel 126 cases of the disease have been reported and another 35 in the occupied West Bank.
Israel has banned gatherings of more than 100 people and some religious authorities, including the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, have moved to implement crowd controls at places of worship.
But the Jordan-appointed council that oversees Islamic sites on Jerusalem’s sacred compound kept it open for Friday prayers, encouraging faithful to congregate on the 35-acre complex’s outdoor grounds rather than inside its covered shrines.
“Whoever has this sickness, this virus, needs to keep their distance so it won’t spread. This is an obligation for Muslims,” Sheikh Mohammad Hussein said in his sermon.
The Waqf council reassured worshippers in a statement that the entire compound, including its golden Dome of the Rock shrine, was being “sterilized continuously”.
Muslim faithful believe the site to be where the Prophet Mohammad ascended to heaven. Jews revere it as the site of the Jewish temples of antiquity. It is one of the most sensitive venues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
(Reporting by Ammar Awad and Ali Sawafta, Writing by Rami Ayyub; Editing by Mike Collett-White)