Millennium countdown: Tinderbox Jerusalem prays for peace as thousands flood in

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The Independent Online
UNDER the cold gaze of a winter sun and the even frostier one of the Israeli security forces, tens of thousands of Muslims tramped through the streets of Jerusalem's Old City last week and headed for one of the world's biggest tinderboxes - Haram al-Sharif, or the Temple Mount.

They gathered, as they always do, for Friday noon prayers at the Al-Aqsa mosque and the nearby Dome of the Rock, the third holiest shrine in the Islamic world which marks the spot where the Prophet Mohammed leapt up to heaven on horseback.

But this time, as they walked through the Old City's cramped streets, tracing a path along the fault-line that divides Jerusalem's Arabs from its Jews, the crowds were even more scrutinised than usual. It was the first Friday of Ramadan, when the turn-out for prayers increases sharply. To those officials whose job it is to keep peace in this fractious city, this matters now more than ever: for the eve of the new millennium also falls on a Friday in Ramadan. As at least 50,000 Palestinians turned out this week, still larger numbers can be expected to be there on 31 December.

It is an alarming prospect. Below the two mosques, on the western edge of the Temple Mount, stands Judaism's most hallowed turf, the Wailing Wall. Only yards from the Arab crowds, devout Jews gather to pray at the wall, which they revere as the last remnant of the gigantic Second Temple built by Herod and knocked down by the Romans in AD70. It is particularly busy on the Sabbath, which also begins on New Year's Eve. The Temple Mount is, observed one Israeli government minister, Haim Ramon, "the most sensitive place in the world".

And, he added, this is "perhaps the most sensitive month". Indeed, the US Federal Bureau of Investigation has produced a report on the threat of millennium-related violence. It says Israeli officials are "extremely concerned" that the Temple Mount will be the stage for bloody clashes. There are several precedents: in 1990, a crowd of young Arabs - incensed by rumours of Jewish fanatics trying to invade the territory of their mosques - began hurling stones down on Jews praying at the wall; 18 Palestinians were killed after the police opened fire. Three years ago, 80 people died in unrest which began when Israel's then premier, Benjamin Netanyahu, agreed to open a tunnel near the site.

According to the FBI, trouble could be set off by a minor incident such as "a simple symbolic act of perceived desecration". Nor need it necessarily involve confrontation between Muslims and Jews. The third great faith rooted in Jerusalem - the one to whom the millennium actually matters - is equally capable of providing the fatal spark. The arrival in Jerusalem of large numbers of Christian tourists is "ominous", says the Bureau, as they could include members of apocalyptic cults - a catch-all description for groups that range from religious fundamentalists to racist New World Order crackpots who believe the UN, backed by a force of armed helicopters, is about to seize control of the planet.

A key concern is that fanatics will engage in violence designed to hasten the second coming of Christ - particularly through an attack on the Al- Aqsa mosque or the Dome of the Rock. "Some millennial cults hold that these structures must be destroyed so that the Jewish Temple can be rebuilt, which they see as a prerequisite for the return of the Messiah," says the FBI report. The Israeli authorities must hope that celebrations of the birth of the Prince of Peace will not be marked by destruction.