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Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock: Jewish, Muslim, or Christian?

While violent demonstrations against further implementation of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty have kept tensions high in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, another conflict has been brewing beneath the surface.

In the Machpelah Cave to be exact.

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Within this cave, within this mosque, within this cathedral, within this Jewish castle are believed to be the tombs of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, and Rebecca - biblical ancestors honored by most Jews, Muslims, and Christians.

So to which religion does the Machpelah belong?

The question is important because in many ways the conflict over the cave in Hebron foreshadows what also may happen with the Jerusalem shrine variously referred to as the Temple Mount, the Harem al Sharif, the Dome of the Rock, and Al Aqsa Mosque.

Ultranationalist Israelis of the Temple Faithful Movement and the Gush Emunim repeatedly have attempted this year to pray in the heretofore exclusively Muslim site in Jerusalem, where fights have erupted.

On April 10 an Israeli soldier, believed acting on his own, fired into a crowd of worshipers and tourists in the compound. A riot ensued, and the Dome of the Rock was closed to prayers for five days. At Friday prayers April 16, the mosque was reopened, but scores of Israeli soldiers and policemen stood on the Temple Mount in an effective show of force (and, perhaps, of Israeli dominance).

Like most plots of land in the Middle East, the Cave of Machpelah and the Temple Mount have belonged to whichever group has held military sway.

For the past seven centuries, Muslim rulers here ensured that the Machpelah was housed in a mosque. Jews were allowed to ascend no higher than the seventh step to the monument. But for the past 15 years, the rulers of the West Bank have been Jewish. Each year, Israeli influence is being felt more and more.

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By the early 1970s, Jews were allowed to pray in the Machpelah Mosque. By 1977, the vestibule of the old crusader-era church was being used for Jewish worship.

In 1980, the baptistry was being used as a synagogue, and there was considerable encroachment on the main Muslim prayer hall. During Friday prayers and during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, however, the main hall is given over to Muslim worshipers.

All of this has not come without violence. In May 1980, six Jews from the nearby settlement of Kiryat Arba were ambushed and killed on their way from Machpelah Cave.

Today, when one visits the tombs of the patriarchs, one finds dozens of armed Israeli soldiers lounging about the entrances. Hatless visitors are handed folded cardboard skullcaps.

In one place, Muslims touch their heads to the floor. In another, Jews bob and read the Torah.

''There is no doubt,'' says an expert on the West Bank, ''that year by year the Jews have been encroaching on the main prayer hall. The Muslims are being pushed farther away.''

At the Temple Mount in Jerusalem - where archeologists believe the Herodian temple once stood - Jews pray at the Wailing Wall (more properly known as the Western Wall) just outside the compound.

So far, there is no Jewish foothold in the Muslim Harem, which houses the golden Dome of the Rock, where Muslims believe Muhammed ascended into heaven. This is the third-holiest site in Islam, after Mecca and Medina. But in theory, it is also Judaism's most sacred site.

''Ultimately, I think there should be praying rights for Jews there,'' says an Israeli government official. ''Certainly a place as holy as that should not be refused to Jews.''

A journalist working for an Arab newspaper in Jerusalem says: ''There are a lot of lunatics who would like to force the issue. This is exactly what happened in Hebron, where the Israelis moved in inch by inch.''

There is, however, a theological issue mitigating against a movement to establish praying rights or a synagogue on the Temple Mount.

No one is quite sure where the ancient Holy of Holies portion of the Jewish temple is located, since the temple was demolished in AD 70.

The ''Torah sages'' in Jerusalem have ruled that no observant Jew should go up to the Temple Mount, lest he further desecrate it.

By ancient law, only the Jewish high priest could enter the Holy of Holies - and since AD 70 there has been no high priest.

But the Temple Mount Faithful group argues that the banning of Jews was essentially a political move, designed to keep the peace with Muslims, and that the location of the Holy of Holies is well enough assumed to be in the area of the Muslim Dome of the Rock. Their movement promises to make Jewish prayer rights there more and more of an issue.

Consequently, there may be more Muslim-Jewish confrontations to come in the grassy, rose-stone courtyard.

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