Israelis warn that Ramadan pilgrims could cause collapse of Solomon's Stables

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It is one of the world's most historic religious sites, holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims. Haram al-Sharif has for centuries been the source of countless disputes between the faiths.

Now, Israel is threatening to restrict the number of Muslims allowed to enter their third holiest shrine during Ramadan. They fear Temple Mount in Jerusalem is in danger of collapsing.

The Israelis contend that excavations over the past eight years to convert the underground Solomon's Stables into a huge mosque have undermined the 35-acre platform and could cause parts of the retaining wall to tumble into the valley below. With up to 200,000 worshippers expected to attend Friday prayers during Ramadan, which begins mid-October, it could turn into a major disaster in one of the world's most sensitive holy places. The structure was weakened further by an earthquake last February.

After appeals to the Waqf, the Islamic trust that administers the Haram, fell on deaf ears, Israel is urging King Abdullah of Jordan to intervene. A police spokesman said yesterday that Commander Ilan Franco, the Jerusalem police chief, visited Amman last week to lobby the royal court. Jordan, the traditional custodian of Muslim holy places in Jerusalem, pays the Waqf's operating budget and salaries, although the Palestinian Authority appointed the chief cleric.

Israel wants to block access to the roof of Solomon's Stables, which Muslims call the Marwani mosque, and to the eastern end of the 4,000-square metre chamber, where Israel says supporting arches have been weakened.

Jon Seligman, the Jerusalem regional archaeologist in the Israeli Antiquities Authority, told The Independent : "There is an imminent danger to the structure, especially if large numbers of people are on top of it. Part of the wall could fall down."

Gideon Ezra, the Internal Security Minister, told Israel Radio yesterday: "We won't have any choice but to reduce the number of worshippers during Ramadan." He insisted that Israel did not intend to prevent Muslims praying there. If certain areas were blocked off to Israel's satisfaction, he said, more worshippers could enter.

Although the mount remained under Muslim administration after Israel conquered East Jerusalem in the 1967 war, Israel has overall control. Its police are permanently present, checking worshippers.

Issam Awad, the Waqf's chief engineer, dismissed Israeli concerns as "unjustifiable". Egyptian engineers studied the structure six months ago, he said, and the Waqf was now doing the necessary repairs under Jordanian supervision. "The Marwani mosque, with a capacity of 4,000 worshippers, is safe for prayers," he insisted.

Solomon's Stables, where the Knights Templar in the thriller, The Da Vinci Code, unearthed "the explosive secret of the Holy Grail", are as contentious today as they were 900 years ago. The stables date back to King Herod's reconstruction of the Jewish Temple in the first century BC. The Romans destroyed them in 70AD, but they were rebuilt by Jerusalem's first Muslim rulers in the early Middle Ages and taken over by the Crusaders.

Few places are so freighted with history and legend. Solomon and Herod built their temples on it, identified by Jewish tradition as Mount Moriah, where Abraham bound Isaac for sacrifice. In the Gospels, it was here that the boy Jesus disputed with the doctors and drove out the moneychangers.

Muslims call the mount Haram al-Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary, identified as the "Farther Temple" to which Mohammed made his Night Journey from Mecca and thence to the Throne of Allah with the Angel Gabriel.

The Romans destroyed the Jewish Temple in 70AD. Caliph Omar, who conquered Jerusalem for Islam in 638, built the first mosque on the mount. Later Muslim rulers erected the magnificent Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa mosques, converted to churches by the Crusaders in 1099.

Since Saladin wrested it back for Islam in 1187, it has remained under zealous Muslim control.

In 1967, Moshe Dayan ordered his troops to take down the Star of David flag they had raised over the Dome. A "Jewish underground" plotted to blow up the site in the 1980s. A visit by Ariel Sharon, then leader of the opposition, in September 2000 lit the fuse of the intifada.

To clear steps into the stables-mosque, the Muslim authorities bulldozed a 1,500-square metre hole 11 metres deep, then laid a concrete slab on top of the chamber. Israeli engineers claim that has destabilised the retaining wall. Cracks had already been detected, but Israelis say work has sped up the problem.

The Waqf suspect Israel want to make historic claim to the mount. "They say the Jews have an equal interest with the Muslims," said Issam Awad. "We reject that. Dividing the mount will ignite a religious war."

The Israelis don't trust Palestinians either. The Waqf refused to let Israelis inspect its excavations and a professional dig has never been undertaken.

Mr Seligman said: "If you come with a bulldozer, you cause irreparable damage." In the rubble dumped by a Muslim contractor, Israeli archaeologists found stones and pottery from every era, but nothing yet of major significance. "Mainly," he added, "They seem to have destroyed a Muslim layer."