Iyad Madani, center, Secretary-General of the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation, stands in front of the Dome of the Rock shrine in Jerusalem Monday Jan. 5, 2015. Madani paid a rare visit to Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa Mosque, urging Muslims to follow suit and come to the city in a bid to strengthen Palestinian claims to the holy site. Image Credit: AP

Manama: Almost three years after the grand mufti of Al Azhar deeply angered Islamists and pan-Arabism groups by visiting occupied Jerusalem, the head of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) has come under the same criticism for making his first visit to Al Aqsa Mosque in the Old City.

Last week, Eyad Al Madani, the OIC secretary-general, visited Al Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third-holiest site, after the Grand Mosque in Makkah and the Prophet Mohammad’s (PBUH) mosque in Madinah, both in Saudi Arabia.

In a statement, he said that “Arabs and Muslims should not be awed by the procedures carried out by the occupation forces and should insist on visiting occupied Jerusalem and the Al Aqsa Mosque.”

“As Arabs and Muslims we must not allow the Israeli occupation to keep us away from our sacred sites,” he said, quoted by the Palestinian news agency. “We have the absolute right to visit our sacred places without any confrontations or obstacles and we must equip ourselves with the strong determination and robust willpower to visit Al Aqsa,” he said.

Al Madani, a Saudi who heads the 57-nation OIC, was reportedly made to wait at the borders before he was allowed to proceed and pray at Al Aqsa.

The Palestinian authorities welcomed the visit and hailed Al Madani’s urging of Arabs and Muslims to show up at the city.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has regularly encouraged Muslims to visit occupied Jerusalem in solidarity with the Palestinians.

However, the visit by Al Madani to occupied Jerusalem and his call to Muslims to follow suit in order to strengthen the Palestinian claims to the holy site were promptly criticised by groups who saw them as a first step to recognise the Israeli control of the city.

‘Position is clear’

Israel occupied East Jerusalem in the 1967 War, but its move to annex the area has not been recognised by the international community.

Islamist movement Hamas criticised the visit and refused calls to turn occupied Jerusalem into a tourist destination for Muslims and Arabs.

In Egypt, the Coptic Orthodox Church has also rejected calls to visit occupied Jerusalem.

“Our position is clear on this issue: we do not allow Christians to visit [occupied] Jerusalem,” Father Polis Halim, Coptic Orthodox Church spokesman, told the Anadolu Agency.

“We want Christians to enter the city together with their Muslim brothers, which is an unchangeable principle of our church. If they [Muslims and Egyptians] visit the city, we will visit it with them. If they insist on not visiting it, we will do the same,” he said.

But while the Coptic Orthodox Church has banned its followers from going on pilgrimages to occupied Jerusalem, Egypt’s Catholic and Anglican churches do not have such a rule.

In April 2012 when Ali Juma, the Grand Mufti of Al Azhar, went to Jerusalem, Hamas also said that the visit was a recognition of its occupation.

One Hamas leader said that the visit meant the normalisation of relations with the occupation and asked the religious scholars to reject it.

Sporadic clashes erupt between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers around the sacred site, revered by both Muslims and Jews, mainly during and after visits by Israeli nationalists to the area, invariably seen as highly provocative.