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Occupied Lives: Violation of the right to freedom of worship


Sheikh Omar Nofal, President of the Shari’a
Appeals Court



Al-Aqsa Mosque in East Jerusalem is regarded in Islam as one of the holy
sites referred to in the Surat al-‘Isra’ (the Qur’anic chapter known in English
as ‘The Night Journey’).  “Exalted is He
who took His Servant by night from al-Masjid al-Haram to al-Masjid al-Aqsa,
whose surroundings We have blessed, to show him of Our signs.  Indeed, He is the Hearing, the Seeing.”  According to the Qu’ran, Jerusalem and its 
surroundings  are the ‘Land of Resurrection and Gathering’, and one prayer said at al-Aqsa Mosque is equal to
one thousand prayers said elsewhere.  For
this reason, it is considered the third holiest site in Islam and an important
place for offering prayers.  Since 2005,
Palestinians from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank have been denied access to
the mosque by Israel’s forces under the pretext of security reasons.  This amounts to denying Palestinians the
freedom to manifest their religion or belief in practice, thus violating a
fundamental aspect of the right to freedom of religion.

Sheikh Omar Nofal (47) is the President of the Shari’a Court of Appeal in the Gaza Strip.  In his capacity as a legal authority and a
religious leader, he gives the following insights into the importance of access
to al-Aqsa Mosque.  He explains: “The al-Aqsa
Mosque was the second mosque to be established on earth.  It was built 40 years after the first mosque
was built in Mecca and it was also the first qibla [the direction towards which
Muslims face when offering prayers].  Al-Aqsa
is believed to be the place to which Prophet Mohammed travelled on his Night
Journey; he prayed there before ascending to Heaven.  Therefore it is a holy site.  The mosque forms a fundamental part of our
doctrine and Shari’a law.  The land of Jerusalem and the area
surrounding the mosque is considered the land of resurrection.  It is not only important for the foundation
of Islam but for other religions as well. 
Al-Aqsa itself is not only a place of worship.  There is a school there and a section where
girls and women are educated.” 

Sheikh Omar Nofal draws attention to the fact that several fundamental aspects
of the right to freedom of religion are being denied by Israel’s forces, and
that these violations go beyond restriction of access: “The actions of IOF [Israeli
Occupation Forces] in the oPt [occupied Palestinian territory] are a clear
violation of various standards for not only Muslims, but everyone else too.  First, shelling has affected many mosques in
the oPt and also several Islamic heritage sites, such as the graveyards where
the companions of Prophet Mohammed were buried. 
Mosques, such as Quisaria, have been turned into pubs and others, such
as Ibrahimi, have been divided into a section for Jews and the rest for Muslims.  There is also construction work being done
under the mosque to establish ‘the temple of Solomon’ for the Jews.  This should not happen.  The rights of Christians have also been
violated, as in the case of a church in Bethlehem where Israeli settlers wrote
slogans on its walls and occupied it, expelling Palestinians.” In addition,
subject to age restrictions, a number of Palestinian Christians are given
permits to visit Jerusalem and Bethlehem. This means that some of them are not
eligible to apply and are also access restricted from visiting their religious
sites. This is an act of discrimination, given that no Muslims are eligible to
apply at all.

Israel’s policy of preventing certain groups of Muslims from reaching
al-Aqsa dates back to the beginning of the occupation: “The major violation has
been denial of access to the mosque for worshipers from Gaza and the West Bank.  During the First Intifada, which began in
1987, only some people were allowed to visit Jerusalem after obtaining permits.  After the Second Intifada began in 2000, a complete
restriction and total ban on travel was declared by IOF and nobody from Gaza or
the West Bank could travel to perform rituals at Al-Aqsa.  This is, however, not the only violation.  Even Palestinians with Israeli IDs living in
Jerusalem face restrictions based on their age . Sometimes they are allowed or
denied access depending on the moods of the soldiers.”

Israel has continuously closed all border crossings to the Gaza Strip for
nearly 5 years. The illegal Israeli-imposed closure of the Gaza Strip has
steadily tightened since June 2007.
Sheikh Omar
feels that the restrictions are an infringement on the right to freedom of religion
and cannot be allowed to continue: “For Palestinians, it is a complete
restriction of access to something very important in their doctrine.  Even those who go through Erez  crossing to Israel for medical treatment
cannot access Jerusalem with the kind of permit they are given.  The irony in this is that foreigners from all
over the world can visit the site but Palestinians are not allowed to visit.  This is clearly oppression and a violation of
the freedom of religion and the right to worship.  As Muslims, we have guaranteed freedom of
worship for all religions in the Gaza Strip. 
Nobody has been attacking other people based on their religion [in Gaza]
but IOF have committed all kinds of violations in the oPt to stop the freedom
of worship.  IOF have denied us freedom
of movement even for the purpose of worship and this is an injustice towards
Muslims.  It is very sad that we cannot
perform our rituals freely.”

Sheikh Omar Nofal asserts that action must be taken by the international
community to bring this situation to an end: “At the moment, the only thing we
can do is raise international awareness through the media and call on other
countries to help us put an end to this. 
The message of the violations and crimes with regard to al-Aqsa should
be conveyed to the whole world.  Whether
it is the rights of Muslims or Christians being violated, all of it should be
put to an immediate end.” 

The right of freedom of religion or belief is
enshrined in Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political
Rights and has been reaffirmed by the Declaration on the Elimination of All
Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief, which
was approved by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1981.This
fundamental right is also protected by several instruments of international law,
including Article 18 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which
states that: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and
religion; this right includes freedom, either alone or in community with others
and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice,
worship and observance.”