A top Egyptian Islamic cleric paid a rare visit to Jerusalem Wednesday, breaking with decades of opposition by Muslim leaders on traveling to areas under Israeli control.
The Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa wrote on his Twitter account that the symbolic visit was in solidarity with the Palestinians' claim to east Jerusalem, under Israel's control since it was captured in the 1967 Mideast war. He prayed in the Al-Aqsa mosque, Islam's third holiest site, during his two-hour visit.
Gomaa called the trip an unofficial visit, clearly an attempt to defuse criticism he is already facing for breaking an unofficial ban by Muslim clerics and most Egyptian professional and private associations on visiting Israel or Israeli-controlled Palestinian territories. The Egyptian Coptic Church, and most Muslim clerics around the region generally uphold the ban as well.
Egypt and Israel signed a peace treaty in 1979, but most Egyptians view the Jewish state as their top enemy, shunning dealings with Israeli authorities. Jordan is the only other Arab country with full diplomatic relations with Israel.
The spokesman for Egypt's powerful Muslim Brotherhood, Mahmoud Ghozlan, said the visit was "very strange."
"Muslim clerics have taken a position that there is no visiting Jerusalem with continued Israeli occupation," Ghozlan said. "He violated this opinion of the majority of clerics. Why, I don't know."
Abdel-Akher Hamad, the leader of the more radical Al-Gamaa al-Islamiyya said the visit was a "challenge" to the boycott and that Gomaa took advantage of Egypt's turbulent political scene to defy a national position.
He called the mufti a holdover from the era of ousted President Hosni Mubarak and predicted Gomaa would not last in his position after a new president is elected.
Gomaa was appointed by Mubarak in 2003 to be Egypt's top religious law expert. He heads Dar al-Ifta, an advisory body where Muslims go to seek a religious opinion on anything from marriage rituals to commercial dealings. The government-appointed cleric also provides the state with religious opinions.
"This visit only endorses the occupation," Hamad said. "But the country is going through a tough time and it is not now that we should call for his dismissal. After an elected president, all these figures must be changed."
Following Mubarak's ouster, Israelis have watched the rise of Islamists in Egypt and have become increasingly concerned over the future relations of their relations with their neighbor. Islamists now dominate the first post-Mubarak parliament and are making a bid for the presidency.
Public opinion in Egypt is generally hostile to warmer relations with Israel, and many had criticized Mubarak for closely coordinating policies with Israel. In September a mob of protesters attacked the Israeli embassy in Cairo after its forces accidentally killed five Egyptian soldiers in the Sinai Peninsula during a pursuit of militants.
The mufti's spokesman, Ibrahim Negm, said the visit was organized by the Jordanian royal family to inaugurate an Islamic research center. Gomaa is a member of the board of trustees of the center named after a renowned Islamic theologian from the 12th century.
"This is not political. It is a scientific and not political visit," Negm said. He defended the mufti's visit, saying there are two different ways of dealing with the issue, not one.
The Jordanian Ministry of Religious Endowment said the visit followed calls from Palestinian officials, including President Mahmoud Abbas, for Muslims to visit the mosque as a way to establish a Palestinian and Arab presence in the disputed city.
The director of the Palestinian Islamic clerical body in charge of administering the Al-Aqsa compound, Azzam Khatib, praised the visit.
"We consider these visits support for the Al-Aqsa mosque. These visits help the Palestinian residents of Jerusalem to be steadfast in the city. It was a religious visit to the Al-Aqsa Mosque and lets the world know that it is an Islamic, Arab site."
Israeli officials had no immediate comment on the visit.