Sheikh Maher Assaf has prayed in the Al-Aqsa Mosque since childhood. Nowadays it is not easy to reach Al-Aqsa Mosque, he explained. Though so-called access routes have been publicized, worshipers still can’t reach the mosque at times.
Today, the single biggest challenge facing those who come to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, he said, is occupation. “It prevents freedoms in general and religious freedom in particular,” he said.
What would help? Open Jerusalem’s access to holy places for all, not just some, urged Assaf. “This requires advocating to ensure Jerusalem is open to freedom of worship and access to holy places.” First and foremost, Palestinian people need to be treated as human beings, and they have rights that must be respected, said Assaf. “On this basis, there can be options to talk about legal mechanisms that allow freedom of worship and movement without restrictions,” he said.
Assaf believes it’s possible for people to work together to achieve this vision—but they aren’t able to at the moment. “With good intentions, nothing is impossible, but the Israeli government practices a discriminatory system in Jerusalem, and treats people differently based on their religion.”
The laws are skewed to deny rights to Palestinians, he added. “The laws that benefit the Jew, the Palestinian cannot benefit from, so he is deprived of his rights, and prevented from many freedoms: freedom of movement, freedom of construction, freedom to repair buildings, freedom of residence.”
“The settler resides in the West Bank and takes full rights,” said Assaf.
He has seen many Palestinians who hold Jerusalem ID cards still deprived of full rights, or suddenly deprived of a Jerusalem ID card altogether.
“The adoption of just laws, and a measure to relieve pressure on the Palestinian citizens of Jerusalem, would make it possible for there to be peace,” he said. “The worst of what is happening is that the government deals with the Palestinians with a political logic, and with the Jews with the logic of the law—so the Palestinian remains stuck without rights.”
Assaf asks that people keep supporting the pursuit of peace in his region, "a just peace, one that enhances freedom and movement between regions with ease,” he said.
He shared a vision of peace where Muslim worshippers could attend the Al-Aqsa Mosque freely—and a world where worship is sacred to all religions.
“Pray for wide, easy and available corridors between all areas so that people can pass easily—even in Gaza, to have the possibility to travel to and from by means of safe and easy transportation,” he said. “Pray for people to reach places of worship with no control based on political reasons.”
Freedom of religion is a means to achieve peace away from conflicts, Assaf believes. “Without forgetting the rights of the Palestinian people to freedom and independence, we must seek the truth, justice, peace and freedom of worship and movement,” he said.