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Activist Mufti Sees Himself as Warrior for Jerusalem

March 6, 1995

JERUSALEM (AP) _ For the first time in decades, Jerusalem has an activist Islamic mufti, one who is taking a strong stand against Israel and Jewish inroads in the holy city.

In his sermons, Mufti Ikrema Sabri openly talks about the destruction of Israel and urges Muslims to be ``holy warriors″ in the battle to preserve Islamic culture in Jerusalem.

The 57-year-old Sabri was appointed by PLO leader Yasser Arafat in October to be the highest Muslim religious authority in Jerusalem. A rival mufti appointed by Jordan has retreated into silence.

Sabri’s main mission is to try to cement Palestinian claims to Jerusalem in the face of opposition from Israel and Jordan.

``I am one of the holy warriors for Jerusalem,″ Sabri said in an interview. ``Jerusalem is part of our religion, it is part of the religion of every Muslim. We consider ourselves holy warriors for this city, and we will not abandon it.″

He maintains that Muslims should use ``all means″ necessary to protect their interests in the city, which is uneasily shared by 350,000 Jews and 150,000 Muslims. But he leaves unclear what his position is on the use of violence, saying he does not want to discuss armed struggle.

Sabri’s references to ``holy war″ grate on Israelis for whom Jerusalem is a powerful religious symbol and the site of the Western Wall, last remnant of Judaism’s ancient temple destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D.

Israel annexed the eastern sector of the city after capturing it from Jordan in the 1967 Mideast war and vows Jerusalem will remain united under Israeli sovereignty.

Jordan still considers itself the guardian of the Muslim holy sites in the city, and its muftis _ the current one included _ have generally kept a low profile. Jordan’s claim as caretaker is challenged by Palestinians who want east Jerusalem as a capital of a future state and say control over the holy sites is rightfully theirs.

Sabri said he warned Arafat recently that the PLO had to do something because Israel’s building campaign in the annexed sector of Jerusalem was ``turning the city into a Jewish place.″

Arafat picked Sabri because of his ardent nationalism and loyalty to the PLO chief.

Islamic radicals, who oppose the PLO’s peace accord with Israel, have not endorsed Sabri’s appointment, but they do not reject him completely either. ``We respect him,″ said Imad Ifranji, a spokesman for the Hamas fundamentalist movement.

Last October, when the Jordanian-appointed mufti, Suleiman Jaberi, died, Jordan appointed Abdel Kader Abdeen as his successor. But Arafat seized the opportunity to stake his claim and named Sabri to the same post.

Since then, Abdeen has closed himself in his office in the Al Aqsa Mosque complex, where tradition says the Prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven.

While Abdeen receives few visitors, Sabri’s office 200 yards away is always crowded with people seeking advice, help or even a good argument about religion.

Sabri was holding court recently when the fax machine next to his desk spewed out a letter from Muslims in Germany who questioned his ruling on the start of Ramadan, the Muslim fasting month.

Asserting his independence from Jordan, Sabri had declared the start of Ramadan one day ahead of Jordan, breaking the tradition under which the Palestinians always followed Jordan’s lead.

Fax in hand, Sabri began debating the point with those in the room. He said the sighting of the lunar crescent from Saudi Arabia, on which he relied, was more accurate ``because of the clear desert sky.″

Sabri also helped a villager get needed medicine, calling the health minister of Arafat’s autonomy government and getting an assurance that the man would be assisted.

Sabri was born into a middle-class religious family in the West Bank town of Qalqiliya in 1938 and was awarded an Islamic law degree from Baghdad University in 1963. After moving to Jerusalem, he became an Al Aqsa preacher in the steps of his father and supervisor of Muslim clerics in Jerusalem and the West Bank.

He has an easy sense of humor. And he is a sharp politician who keeps his options open.

Asked whether he supported making peace with Israel, Sabri refused to answer. ``Don’t put me in that trap,″ he said.

He also was evasive when asked to compare himself to Jerusalem’s last activist mufti, Amin Husseini, who led the Palestinians in their fight against creation of a Jewish state in the 1920s and ’30s and who later collaborated with the Nazis. ``I don’t want to provoke the Israelis,″ Sabri said.

But when addressing 10,000 worshipers recently at Al Aqsa, Sabri delivered a fiery anti-Israeli speech. ``Muslims, I am sure that Israel will eventually be destroyed and that the (Jewish) settlements will be your spoils,″ he told the crowd.

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