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. Alon Chanoch

    I have not read all the posts, so if this is a repeat... my apologies. I also realize that this topic was briefly mentioned in the original news article, but was brushed aside. Before persons go to judge let me remind you something ...

    These tombstones were fake markers erected to prevent the construction. The land is actually owned by Israel and the cemetery in question is a historic cemetery (meaning ... no new burials). Please read other sources before you pass judgment.

    Best regards from Jerusalem, Israel!


    August 14, 2010 at 10:23 pm |
  2. Jeff B.

    Perhaps most of you dont understand the nature of cemeteries in this country. When you bury your dead, you get a lease of 100 years...after that,the grave may be exhumed.
    Get educated.

    August 14, 2010 at 10:22 pm |
  3. Jeff B.

    The Dome of the Rock is built on THEE holiest site to Jews.
    Arabs have desecrated hundreds of Jewish cemeteries and synagogues.
    "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."
    What's good for the goose......

    August 14, 2010 at 10:13 pm |
  4. Rich

    Take Jerusalem away from both the Palestinians and Israelis and give it to the U.N. We don't need the anti-american organization on american soil anymore.

    August 14, 2010 at 9:59 pm |
  5. ligaya143

    Muslims built the Golden Dome mosque over the Holy of Holies the temple of David in jerusalem after they razed the temple to the ground during the Muslim invasion of the HOly Land. They also destroyed the Christian churches there at that time and used the churches materials to build the present day Golden Dome mosque. The marble slab that used to cover the tomb of Jesus the Christ was intentionally broken into half by Christians so Muslims won't use the tomb cover as floor for the mosque. All the pillars, floors, roofs of the mosque were actually taken from synagogues and churches.

    August 14, 2010 at 9:56 pm |
  6. truthywood

    Muslims are building their community center 2 blocks from ground zero , while Christian and Jewish Zionazis building their their Memorial on the grave of Palestinians on illegaly occupied, They have lost their morals completely , they are the worst people in the world right now.

    August 14, 2010 at 9:48 pm |
    • ligaya143

      Where do you get the idea that Christians can build churches in Gaza? The last time I read in news was that Hamas militants burned 5 Christian churches and schools and they burned all the Bibles, sacred images and pictures of Jesus and Mary. They also threatened to kill the Catholic nuns doing charity works among Christian minorities in Gaza. Also Israel do not allow more Christian construcion of churches. Israel even rejected the request of teh Vatican to reclaim the Holy Upper Inn where traditions says the Last Supper the First Mass by jesus and the apostles were done after it was converted into mosque during the Muslim invasion of the HOly Land and then was converted into museum by the Isareli governemnt.

      August 14, 2010 at 10:02 pm |
  7. ligaya143


    August 14, 2010 at 9:42 pm |
  8. Jim

    Maybe these Mulsims will understand how the families of WTC victims feel about a mosque there. What exactly is the difference? Muslims want to stick it in our face a mosque near the place we were attacked. Now, they get a payback.

    August 14, 2010 at 9:25 pm |
  9. buccakenji

    This site is absurd in the way comments are posted. Ascending date/time order is stupid. Going to the end of 286 comments to find the most recent, and usually the most relevant, is dumb.

    August 14, 2010 at 9:20 pm |
  10. Fernando F.

    one more proof that Israel doesn't want peace. they will do this outrageous things until the other side shows some violence, since they can go to a court and stop Israel.

    August 14, 2010 at 9:18 pm |
  11. Dean

    It doesn't matter what person said what about the land being abandoned. Human beings were buried there. That is a sacred place no matter who said what when! It makes me sick to see bulldozers destroying tombstones. When will Israel and the Palestinians end this craziness. Enough is enough.

    August 14, 2010 at 9:05 pm |
  12. M&M

    To all you people who are not familiar with the Ground Zero site who keep saying that the Mosque site is 2 blocks away. Go visit NYC and then make your comments. All the buildings for blocks around the actual Ground Zero site holds the remains/dust/bones of the victims from 9/11. This entire area is a burial ground because it was their final resting place.

    August 14, 2010 at 9:00 pm |
  13. DN

    A more appropriate title for the article would be "Muslims oppose destruction of Islamic cemetery"...

    August 14, 2010 at 9:00 pm |
  14. M&M

    steve, you are the idiot. Apparently you are not familiar with the Ground Zero site. The remains of the people from 9/11 still sites on top of the buildings blocks away from the actual twin towers. This buildings are their final resting place. This is a burial ground and should not be disturbed. If the Muslims want to build their Mosque there, fine. But don't tear it down. But, as I said, payback is a b!tch!

    August 14, 2010 at 8:57 pm |
    • Greg

      So I guess all building anywhere near the WTC buildings must stop now and that means all buildings and not just the Mosque? Yea, I'm betting that's not going to happen and I'm pretty sure no one in NYC feels the way you do, because it's a pretty stupid line of thought.

      August 14, 2010 at 9:14 pm |
  15. wasabiwahabi

    Anonymous, i"ignorance3" you say? Go to the source, the koran, "Put them to the sword; that is the punishment for such unbelievers. If they cease hostility, then surely Allah is Forgiving, Merciful. Fight against them until there is no more disorder and Allah’s supremacy is established."

    August 14, 2010 at 8:57 pm |
  16. M&M

    nzak – you have no clue of the site in NYC so you really should not comment. The NYC site holds the dust and remains of the dead from 9/11. It is a burial site.

    August 14, 2010 at 8:55 pm |
  17. Jimm

    Nobody was loud when Serbians were building parking lots over Bosnian Muslims cemetery.

    August 14, 2010 at 8:54 pm |
  18. M&M

    nzak – poor excuse trying to explain the difference. The fact is that the dust of the people who were exterminated still lies on top of the buildings around the site including the one that the Muslims want to tear down and build their Mosque. They demolish a burial site in NYC and the Jews demolish their grave site. Who would have thought! I don't agree with either but I do believe that what you sow you will reap!

    August 14, 2010 at 8:53 pm |
  19. M&M

    Payback is a b!itch! And the Muslims don't understand why the Mosque should not be built at the site at Ground Zero? I suppose they are just playing stupid. As the saying goes...don't spit in the sky because it will fall in your face!

    August 14, 2010 at 8:50 pm |
  20. EMC729

    Now they know how we feel about a mosque n ear Ground Zero! If we have to put up with that muslims... JUST DEAL!!!

    August 14, 2010 at 8:47 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.