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August 14th, 2010
09:31 AM ET

Muslims oppose Israeli construction at Islamic cemetery

[cnn-video url= http://www.cnn.com/video/#/video/world/2010/08/13/vo.cemetery.demo.cnn%5D

Eve Bower in Atlanta and Kareem Khadder in Jerusalem submitted this report:

Just before midnight on August 9, the bulldozers moved in and destruction of Jerusalem's best-known Islamic cemetery was once again under way.

The controversy surrounding the project - new construction on an area overlapping the cemetery of Ma'man Allah (God's Sanctuary) or Mamilla, as it is known in West Jerusalem - had simmered for years. That night, over 100 more graves in the ancient cemetery were demolished, further eroding what Palestinians see as a losing battle to preserve a sacred cultural landmark.

Mamilla, Jerusalem's oldest Islamic cemetery, dates back to the early days of Islam in the sixth century AD. Many of the people buried in the cemetery are believed to have been Islamic scholars and others who knew the Prophet Mohammad, including Islamic warriors who fought the crusaders in Jerusalem.

In more recent years, the cemetery has been in the spotlight amid controversy over Israel's plan to build a number of structures on top of the site, including the Museum of Tolerance, a parking lot, a park and an Israeli government building. The announcement of the construction plan outraged many Palestinians, who saw the project as one that desecrated holy land for the sake of a tourist attraction.

The Museum of Tolerance, affiliated with the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says that the site of the proposed development has not been part of the cemetery for almost 50 years, and cites as justification for the development's location a 1964 declaration by "the highest Muslim religious authorities" that the "entire area" was "an abandoned, ancient cemetery where public facilities may be built."

Palestinian groups petitioned the United Nations to intervene in efforts to go forward with the building project, but the Israeli courts ruled that since the graveyard had been in disuse for several decades, building could commence, and in 2006, the proposed development came one step closer to reality: Then-mayor of Jerusalem Ehud Olmert and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger laid the foundation stone for the museum.

Since then, sections of the cemetery have been periodically razed by developers seeking to move forward with new construction, but progress is halting, as protests from the cemetery's supporters occasionally result in the suspension of additional building.

On Monday, the Jerusalem Municipality, working as the project's developers, obtained the Jerusalem Magistrate Court's approval to resume demolition and the bulldozers moved in late Monday night. Journalists at the cemetery reported that police officers and private armed security personnel tried to bar filming and documentation of the efforts under way on the grounds that they were endangering their lives.

CNN shot footage of the tombstones being destroyed before journalists' access was denied. These same tombstones have emerged as yet another flash point in the controversy.

Opponents of the construction site argue that the tombstones that have been destroyed recently dated back to ancient times. There were Israeli media reports, however, that the tombstones that were destroyed had been added to the land only recently, with the intent to obstruct the construction project.

Israel's Channel 10 reported on August 5 that "in the last month, surprisingly, 150 new tombstones were added. The Jerusalem municipality decided to demolish the fake tombstones."

Zaki Ighbarieh, head of The Aqsa Foundation, said, "Their claim that we have built new graves is an excuse for them to destroy the entire cemetery. We will continue to repair the graves that were destroyed because the land is for graves."

He added, "We believe this is a completion of a land confiscation process by a museum and other venues like a parking lot and streets." The Aqsa Foundation is a group dedicated to preserving Islamic heritage and culture, and had undertaken the restoration of a number of the headstones.

The legal framework in which the grave preservations and demolitions happen is fraught with mixed messages and competing jurisdictions, leaving the permissibility of either action hotly contested by various groups.

The Aqsa Foundation challenges the legality of the demolition efforts of the past week, which it says have included the destruction of nearly 350 graves altogether.

"I can call it theft of graves," the group's lawyer, Mohammad Suleiman Ighbarieh said, due to the fact that demolition had restarted on August 3 without a court order. It was only after hundreds of graves were destroyed, Ighbarieh said, that the Jerusalem Magistrate gave approval for the demolition to resume.

According to the Aqsa Foundation, for the past year, the Islamic Sharia Court in Jerusalem has had a verbal agreement with the Municipality of Jerusalem to allow the Aqsa Foundation to carry out cemetery improvements and renovations of graves.

To resume grave demolitions, Aqsa spokesman Mahmoud Abu Atta argues, the developers would have needed to obtain agreement from the Islamic Sharia Court, which has been appointed with power of attorney as caretaker of the Mamilla cemetery.

Even where formal judicial approval for the demolitions is granted, the activity itself remains highly controversial.

"If they say they have court orders to demolish, then why are they demolishing in the middle of the night?" Abu Atta said.

Ighbarieh took photos and other evidence from the cemetery to the court and filed a formal request for the court to order that the grave demolitions stop.

The decision, issued Tuesday, August 10, mandated coordination with Islamic power of attorney in order for any construction to continue. This meant that if the municipality wanted to resume demolition from Tuesday onward, it would need the express consent of the Islamic Sharia Court.

Despite the Islamic Sharia Court's refusal to consent, on Tuesday night, demolition continued.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Interfaith issues • Islam • Israel • Judaism

soundoff (430 Responses)
  1. PAUL

    the grass withers and the flower falls away and is remembered no more, those people are dead and thier bones will not come back to life, if the cemetery has not been used for some time , it is isreals right to use the land again , even if it is for other use , muslims should store thier ancestors bones in thier mosque basements,

    August 14, 2010 at 2:39 pm |
  2. progressv.skywizard

    no ground is holy. It's just ground. No one cares what god you believe in. thousands of years ago the religions were all different. Can't preserve ground forever if you are just a flash in the pan. Progress: involves no religion.

    August 14, 2010 at 2:38 pm |
  3. rgcnn

    Typical Israelites, when will this end? When will the world see through Jews?

    August 14, 2010 at 2:37 pm |
  4. virginia

    wats up wit these all comments. Everbody is trying to defend views and opinions. Whether it's muslim or anything in this world, b cool and think for the humanity . NOT FOR BULLSHIT CRAP....USE YOUR BRAIN FOR GOOD THING ...JUST DONT SIT AND TALK... DO SOMETHING .... TALKING IS NOT A SOLUTION

    August 14, 2010 at 2:24 pm |
  5. Musket

    fail. i thought they are building a mosque, but now they are saying its a community center? just wonder how much they will change their words just to show the people of US that they are ultimate victor.

    August 14, 2010 at 2:24 pm |
  6. WhatTheHuh

    ah, go ahead with the plans indeed! its really no different than putting a mosque on top of the 3000+ ghosts of 9-11 on ground zero... c'mon muslims–you cant have it both ways.

    August 14, 2010 at 2:23 pm |
  7. Abe

    Hitler murdered all the retards. He'd have murdered you too.

    August 14, 2010 at 2:19 pm |
  8. Milenkovic

    This kind of thing is meant to win the hearts and minds of those we oppress. If we now add a spermicide to the water supply, pretty soon we'll have to turn our spite somewhere else.

    August 14, 2010 at 2:18 pm |
  9. Abe

    What's what a country is doing got to do with the annihilation of a people.

    August 14, 2010 at 2:18 pm |
  10. Abe

    You're sick!!!

    August 14, 2010 at 2:17 pm |
  11. frogman

    I think that Allah should pack up all the Muslims and sacred cities, sites and all their other stuff and transport them and it back to Arabia where they belong. Then they would never have to worry about being offended or their sites anything being desecrated ever again.

    August 14, 2010 at 2:15 pm |
  12. Abe

    Yes.

    and not only the dome of the rock.

    Thousands of Hindu Temples

    August 14, 2010 at 2:14 pm |
  13. Ha

    I say nuke the middle east

    August 14, 2010 at 2:13 pm |
    • Abe

      The muslim problem is all over the world. We need to stop bending over backwards for them.

      August 14, 2010 at 2:15 pm |
    • Ha

      I didn't just mean the muslims. The whole region is a pain. I think if we just nuke them we can move forward and Obama can be like "My Bad"

      August 14, 2010 at 2:41 pm |
    • Matt J.

      Yours is the most idiotic idea I have ever seen proposed for any purpose. And that is saying a lot.

      August 16, 2010 at 5:57 pm |
  14. Jabra

    Muslims complaining about building over existing structures, they would have the moral highground here if that eye sore of a temple in jeruselam was destroyed, the dome of the rock...

    August 14, 2010 at 2:11 pm |
  15. Abe

    Muslims have been descrating Jewish and Christian graves for centuries.

    The Israelis demolish some fake graves and the world is in an uproar.

    The muslim want to build a mosque at ground zero and the world bends over backwards for them.

    August 14, 2010 at 2:09 pm |
  16. Abe

    Fake Tombstones. Went up over night and yet they were over a thousand years old.

    Lol.

    August 14, 2010 at 2:06 pm |
    • One Whose Name Means Beloved of God

      Abe–I agree that these tombstones could be fake (i.e. they aren't where the graves are). But they could also be 1000 years old. You just have to move them.

      Archeologists run into these problems everywhere. We have vandalism problems in Iowa in pioneer cemeteries. It's hard to know if the stones are still in the right spot short of digging up the grave to check.

      August 15, 2010 at 10:43 am |
  17. Eric G

    Personally, I will not care what happens to my grave, because I'll be dead. Build anything you want on my grave. (except a church)

    August 14, 2010 at 2:06 pm |
  18. Robert Smtih

    Tombstones are the only thing that is remembered about many people. At the very least, they should move the tombstones to another place that they won't be disturbed again. In my state reservoirs and lakes have been created, and the developers took care of all of the remains and tombstones by moving them to another place.

    August 14, 2010 at 2:03 pm |
  19. Major Tom

    Building on an ancient burial site..
    Didn't these people read ANY Stephen King novel?
    I mean c'mon!

    August 14, 2010 at 2:01 pm |
    • Ground Control

      Finally a bit of levity. As hilarious as it is to read these peoples butthurt comments, I get tired of it. Someone posted to nuke the middle east (all of it) and I cant help but think that might make my newspaper about 20 percent lighter. Cheers!

      August 14, 2010 at 3:37 pm |
  20. VA4EVER

    HELLO I AM MUSLIM LIVING HERE FOR 25 YEARS I WAS 7 WHEN I CAME HERE. I PERSONALLY THINK BUILDING A MOSQUE NEAR GROUND ZERO TOO DANGEROUS.

    August 14, 2010 at 1:54 pm |
    • Abe

      We don't mind muslims having a mosque. But just not there.

      There has to be a reason why particularly there.

      And yes it's too dangerous.

      August 14, 2010 at 1:56 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.