JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli police detained on Wednesday the top Muslim cleric in the Holy Land following disturbances at a disputed holy site in Jerusalem, in a rare crackdown on a leading religious figure that drew fierce condemnations from Palestinians.
The detention of Mohammed Hussein, the mufti of Jerusalem, raised tensions as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was to meet Israeli officials in Rome as part of his efforts to restart long-stalled peace talks.
Hussein was detained for questioning over an incident on Tuesday in which Muslim worshippers threw rocks and chairs at tourists visiting the hilltop compound that houses the Al Aqsa Mosque, Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said. He wouldn't elaborate on the mufti's alleged involvement and said the cleric could be released later. Senior clerics are rarely detained in Jerusalem.
The hilltop compound is one of the region's most sensitive sites. It is revered by Jews as the Temple Mount, built above the ruins of the two biblical Jewish Temples. The Al Aqsa Mosque is the third-holiest site in Islam, from which Muslims believe their Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven.
The conflicting claims to the site lie at the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and any acts seen as upsetting the delicate status quo risk setting off violence. Palestinians see visits by Israelis at the site as a provocation. Israeli steps to quell Palestinian disturbances there have led to riots in the past.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas condemned the mufti's detention and called on Israel to release him. "Arresting the mufti is a stark challenge to the freedom of worship," Abbas said in a statement released by the official Palestinian news agency Wafa.
The arrest threatened to complicate Kerry's efforts to restart peace talks, which have been stalled since late 2008. The Palestinians have refused to negotiate while Israel builds settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. The Palestinians claim both areas, captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war, as parts of a future independent state and say settlement construction must halt.
Kerry has been shuttling between the Israeli and Palestinian sides in recent weeks in hopes of finding a formula to restart talks. In Rome, he was meeting the chief Israeli negotiator, Tzipi Livni.
The incident occurred as Israelis marked "Jerusalem Day," which commemorates the anniversary of Israel's capture of east Jerusalem. The city's eastern sector is home to the Old City, where key Jewish, Muslim and Christian holy sites are located.
Many Jews celebrate the day for "reunifying" the city they yearned and prayed for. Thousands flock to the city to wave flags and dance outside the Old City.
For Palestinians it's a somber day.
Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed reporting.