A pandemic has transformed how Muslims in Palestine are experiencing Ramadan
JERUSALEM — The last time Muslim worshipers were kept out of the Aqsa Mosque compound throughout the entire month of Ramadan was when crusaders controlled Jerusalem in the Middle Ages.
Now, the coronavirus pandemic has done what the intervening centuries had not: largely emptying the often crowded and chaotic spaces of Islam’s third holiest site, where Muslims believe the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven.
The restricted entry to the compound is only one example of how the pandemic has radically transformed the way Muslims in Palestine have experienced the sacred fasting month of Ramadan as they cope with government social distancing measures.
Instead of attending elaborate fast-breaking feasts with extended family members and smoking water pipes at thronged cafes, Arab citizens occupied Palestine have spent much of their time in unwelcome isolation.
Standing outside one of the shuttered entrances to the Aqsa compound, Mohammed Suleiman, a school security guard from Jerusalem, held back tears as he spoke about his desire to pray at the mosque.
“The Aqsa is healthy, but we aren’t,” said Mr. Suleiman, clutching a green and red prayer mat. “I hope we can return to it soon because I feel lonely without it.”
In April, the Islamic Waqf, the Jordanian-backed religious body that administers the mosque compound, decided to close the site to the public throughout Ramadan, citing public health concerns.
The Aqsa, which Jews revere as their holiest site and refer to as the Temple Mount, is often at the center of tensions between Zionists and Palestinians.
In one of the few large open spaces near the Aqsa compound last week, some 30 worshipers, including Mr. Suleiman, gathered under the blazing sun for traditional Friday afternoon prayers, while keeping a distance of several feet between each other. Nearby, a large contingent of Zionist police officers stood guard.
While the Aqsa has been closed to the Muslim public, the imams who work there have continued to deliver sermons in it, livestreaming over Facebook special Ramadan evening prayers, known as taraweeh, as well as Friday afternoon prayers. Tens of thousands of social media users have viewed the broadcasts.
Other organizations have also been providing online content to Muslims during this Ramadan like no other.
“Ramadan Nights from Jerusalem,” has created a website featuring daily virtual events about Islam, the fasting month and Arabic culture in Arabic, Hebrew and English.
On the site, thousands have tuned into a wide range of programs like a lesson on how to prepare kibbe, deep-fried balls of ground meat and bulgur; a lecture about the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad; and an oud concert.
“We want to provide Muslims with diverse and rich content to engage during the month,” said Dr. Raquel Ukeles, a co-founder of the project and the curator of the National Library of Israel’s Islam and Middle East collection. “But we also want to create opportunities for non-Muslims to learn about Islam and Ramadan.”
Less than a mile from the Aqsa, the decades-old Jaafar Sweets shop in Jerusalem has witnessed a sharp decline in business during the fasting month, selling about half as much as it did in 2019. The Zionist government has allowed sweets shops in Jerusalem to be open for takeout orders only, and the shop’s large seating section was empty.