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Muslims Quietly Begin Worship at New Mosque in Al Aqsa Compound

December 2, 1996

JERUSALEM (AP) _ To avoid provoking Israel’s right wing, Muslims have begun quietly to use a renovated prayer hall in the Al Aqsa Mosque compound, a site claimed as holy by Jews and Muslims.

Some 200 worshipers knelt on straw mats for noon prayers Monday in the ancient underground vault _ known both as Solomon’s Stables and as the Marwani Mosque.

The Al Aqsa compound is the most sensitive spot in the Israeli-Arab conflict, and any changes there are closely watched by Muslims and Jews. Israel’s decision in September to open an entrance to a tourist tunnel alongside it set off three days of rioting and Palestinian-Israeli gun battles that claimed 79 lives.

In recent months, the vault has been renovated, using $200,000 in donations and volunteer labor, mainly from Israeli Arabs. Workers have been laying floor tiles and installing lighting to turn the chamber into a prayer hall that can accommodate up to 10,000 worshipers.

Court challenges by Jewish militants have failed to stop the work. Last month, Israel’s Supreme Court turned down appeals by two Jewish groups demanding the work be stopped and the mosque’s opening be prevented.

Two weeks ago, without fanfare, the Marwani Mosque opened.

Mustafa Tawil, an Islamic court judge, said the opening underscored the Muslims’ autonomy in administering the Al Aqsa compound. ``Israeli authorities have no business with our mosque,″ he said as he climbed down the newly tiled steps.

The compound is built on the site of the Jewish Temple, destroyed by the Romans in A.D. 70. The last remnant of the Temple, the Western Wall, is Judaism’s holiest shrine.

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