Mosque Construction Causes Widespread Protests

JERUSALEM, Feb. 8, 2007— -- Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert rejected his defense minister's call Thursday to stop repairs near Jerusalem's most sacred Islamic shrine, construction that has angered Muslims.

Several dump trucks, two backhoes and more than 2,000 police officers were brought in as the repair job began Tuesday.

A covered bridge leading to the Al Aksa Mosque, Islam's third holiest site, must be fixed according to the Israeli government, which said the project would take eight months to complete.

As earth was being removed to create new foundations to secure the bridge, Muslims revealed their worst suspicions.

The king of Jordan, the Saudi government, Iran's leading cleric and local Islamic leaders joined the calls for Muslims to protest the construction.

Critics said the Israeli government took this opportunity to change the "status quo" of the area, known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as al-Haram al-Sharif.

Palestinian Hoda AlImam works in the Old City. She is sure the Israeli government is trying to expand the Western Wailing Wall Plaza it captured in the 1976 war. To her, the construction is ruining sacred Islamic ground.

She said the city should welcome all three religions, but "Israel is trying to take over the entire area," she said.

"The occupation forces are trying to change the status quo," she scoffed as she pointed to dump trucks hauling away soil next to the bridge leading to the mosque.

In response to the critics, Israel's antiquities authority said by law the workers must sift through the earth to check for any new artifacts.

Since work began Tuesday, a few hundred protesters have showed up outside Jersualem's Old City, chanting slogans and praying. But it will be tomorrow, when Friday prayers begin, that clashes are expected.

Raed Salah leads the Islamic movement in Israel and has called tomorrow Al Aqsa Day. He is asking all Muslims to come and protest.

There are fears this conflict will spiral out of control. In 1996, Israeli construction near the mosque led to riots and more than 60 deaths. Ariel Sharon went to the mosque without Islamic leaders' permission in 2000. As a result, the second intifada erupted, killing more than 5,000 people.

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