Ikrama al-Sabri, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and the Palestinian Territories, issued a desperate plea Thursday to Israeli Authorities to stop the desecration of Jerusalem’s oldest Muslim cemetery by the construction of a ‘Museum of Tolerance’ on the site.
Skeletons uncovered this week during excavation of the site have brought what has thus far been a legal battle to a point of high emotion.
"We adhere to our legitimate right to protect the Ma’man Allah graveyard and all other Muslim cemeteries. This is the oldest Muslim graveyard in Palestine," said al-Sabri.
The proposed museum, supposedly to promote tolerance between Judaism and other world religions, is sponsored by the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Centre, in partnership with the Israeli Jerusalem municipality and the Israeli government. At the 2004 groundbreaking, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger was present, as was Ehud Olmert (now the acting Israeli Prime Minister).
Durragham Saif, the lawyer who brought the Islamic Court suit, said, "It’s unbelievable, it’s immoral. You cannot build a museum of tolerance on the graves of other people. Imagine this kind of thing in the [United] States or England. And this is the Middle East where events are sensitive. If this goes ahead in this way it is going to cause the opposite thing to tolerance." The petition submitted by Saif, and currently on it’s way to the Israeli High Court, is a class-action type suit on behalf of three Palestinian families, Al Dijani, Nusseibeh and Bader Elzain, all of whom have family members buried at the cemetery.
Contractors for the museum continue excavating the remains of people buried at the site – which was a cemetery for at least 1,000 years – despite a temporary ban on work granted by the Islamic Court, a division of Israel’s justice system. Rather than enforcing the Court’s ban, Israeli police are allowing the desecration to continue while they seek legal advice on the matter. Said contractor representative Itsho Gur, "There are tensions over this work. But as long as we don’t get an official order from police or from a court, we won’t stop the work."
Simon Wiesenthal Centre spokesman Hagai Elias stated, "The land wasn’t a cemetery when we got it from city hall and the government..", but Muslim leaders point out that before the site was seized by the Israeli government in 1967, it was a cemetery for over 1,000 years, and was in the care of the Muslim Waqf, a religious trust.