JERUSALEM (AP) — For decades, the religious Jews who bucked a rabbinic ban and visited a contested holy site in Jerusalem where the ancient Jewish temple once stood were seen by many as a fanatic fringe.
But their cause is gaining support among both mainstream religious Jews and Israel's government, much to the dismay of Muslim officials. Jewish visits to the politically sensitive compound are on the rise, and key Israeli lawmakers are lobbying to end a ban on Jewish prayer there. Israel has also approached Jordan, which administers Muslim religious affairs at the site, about allowing limited Jewish worship there.
The visits have unnerved Muslim authorities, who fear Israel is quietly trying to upset a fragile status quo and encroach upon the site. Similar tensions in the past have boiled over into deadly violence.
"If this happens, there will be lot of bloodshed," said Azzam Khatib, director general of the Waqf, Jordan's Islamic authority that manages the Jerusalem holy site, about the possibility of organized Jewish prayers there.
The raised compound, known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount, is ground zero in the territorial and religious conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors.
Israel captured the site, located in the Old City, and the rest of east Jerusalem from Jordan in the 1967 Mideast war, declaring it part of a unified capital. The Palestinians claim east Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.
Revered as Islam's third holiest spot, the site's gold-topped Dome of the Rock enshrines the rock from which Muslims believe the Prophet Mohammad ascended on a visit to heaven.
Jews believe the rock may mark the holiest part of the two ancient temples that stood about 2,000 years ago —where religious Jews pray a third temple will one day be built.
The site is so holy that Jews have traditionally refrained from praying on the hilltop, congregating instead at the adjacent Western Wall, a remnant of a temple retaining wall. In recent weeks, Israel's chief rabbis, as well as the rabbi of the Western Wall, have urged people not to ascend the Temple Mount, arguing that Jews could inadvertently enter the holiest area of the once-standing temple, where it was forbidden to tread.
Attitudes among Orthodox Jews have been evolving, however, as archaeologists have weighed in about the precise location of the ancient temples — and of places where Jews would be allowed to set foot.
Jewish visits jumped from about 5,700 in 2009 to some 8,300 in 2011. Last year, the number dropped to about 7,800 and this year rose to nearly 8,000, according to police figures published by the Israeli newspaper Makor Rishon. A police spokeswoman confirmed the police had compiled statistics for the paper through a freedom of information request.
In one of the strangest security measures in the Holy Land, visitors identified as Jews receive police escorts to ensure they do not break a ban on prayers, put in place to keep the peace.
Rabbi Chaim Richman of the Temple Institute, a group that has for years been advocating for Jewish prayer at the site, said police often harass and remove Jews who recite prayers.
"I'm asking for the right to move my lips," Richman said.
An aide to Israel's Deputy Religious Affairs Minister Eli Ben-Dahan said the ministry has drafted a proposal allowing for limited Jewish prayer in the compound.
"We see great importance to allow equality in freedom of religion," said Idit Druyan, the aide. "There is no reason why one religion is allowed and another religion is not."
Muslims have protested in recent weeks over what they call Jewish encroachment. Muslim clerics have warned against allowing separate hours for Jewish and Muslim prayer, an arrangement Druyan said the Religious Affairs Ministry has considered.
A Jordanian official said Israel asked Jordan this month to consider allowing a limited number of Jews to pray in a small area in the compound, according to a Jordanian official. The Israeli request was rebuffed, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a diplomatic matter.
The Jordanian official said King Abdullah II has asked Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu several times, most recently two weeks ago, to prevent Jewish worship at the compound, warning it could ignite anti-Israel sentiment around the Muslim world.
Israeli officials declined to comment.
The status of the site remains perhaps the most explosive issue in U.S.-brokered peace talks.
When Israel captured it, an Israeli flag was enthusiastically raised on the Dome of the Rock. But the flag was quickly taken down, and Israel conceded administrative control of the compound to the Waqf.
When hawkish former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ascended the mount in 2000 in a demonstration of Israeli sovereignty, it helped trigger the second Intifada, or Palestinian uprising. More than 3,000 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis were killed in several years of fighting.
Despite tensions, Jewish visits continue. One morning last week, during tourist hours, eight Orthodox Jews entered, shadowed by an Israeli police officer and a Waqf representative.
When their minders were distracted, the visitors murmured psalms.
The Jewish visitors said they often resort to tricks to circumvent the ban. Some recite prayers while pretending to talk on the phone. Others secretly prostate themselves in prayer while bending down to observe shrubbery or pick up dropped keys.
Pinchas Rosenfelder, a 44-year-old Toronto native who moved to Israel, said his monthly visits to the site were to uphold Israeli sovereignty.
"If you're not in a place, you lose it," Rosenfelder said. "The lack of a Jewish presence here is not a good thing."
Rabbi David Rosen, an Israeli interfaith activist, said Jews should be allowed to pray at the site as part of an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, but allowing it before a deal could torpedo current negotiations.
"The fact something is a right doesn't mean you have to exercise it," Rosen said. "It doesn't take much to light this tinderbox."
Follow Daniel Estrin at twitter.com/danielestrin