WASHINGTON — The annual State Department report on religious freedoms emphasizes Trump administration efforts to maintain the status quo on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount and encourage religious pluralism in Israel.
In the report released this month, the Israel section reflects the importance that the Trump administration attached to tamping down tensions that exploded in July after terrorists killed two Israeli policemen on the Temple Mount and Israel installed new security measures there.
It also casts the U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, whose nomination came under criticism from Jewish groups because of his previous lacerating attacks on liberal Jews, as a champion of pluralism.
The report makes specific reference to attempts by non-Orthodox Jews to conduct prayer services at the Western Wall, which abuts the Temple Mount.
“The U.S. Ambassador and embassy officers spoke with government officials and Knesset leaders about the importance of maintaining the status quo at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif and not escalating tensions through provocative actions or statements,” it said. “In meetings with government officials, embassy officers stressed the importance of religious pluralism and respect for non-Orthodox streams of Judaism.”
The Temple Mount
The section on the Temple Mount, a site holy to Muslims and Jews, is unusually lengthy and documents in detail what appear to be official Israeli actions challenging the status quo.
The “status quo” refers to agreements whereby the Waqf, the Muslim religious authority that answers to Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, holds religious authority on the Temple Mount itself. For decades the Waqf has banned Jewish worship on the plateau — in agreement with successive Israeli governments — while allowing Jewish visitors.
“Despite the Israeli government’s policy prohibiting non-Muslim worship at the site, some Jewish groups escorted by Israeli police at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount performed religious acts such as prayers and prostration,” the report said.
The declarations of U.S. sensitivity to Muslim claims to Jerusalem’s holiest site come just weeks after President Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, precipitating a crisis in U.S.-Palestinian relations.
“Incidents of attempted Jewish prayer at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount increased from previous years, according to local NGOs, media, and Jewish Temple Mount movement groups, and occurred on a near-weekly basis,” it said. “During Jewish holidays, such as Passover, Tisha B’Av, and Sukkot, tons of Jewish Temple Mount activists engaged in prayer on the site. In most cases, Israeli police acted to prevent them from praying and removed them, but in other cases, some of which were documented on social media in photos and videos, the police appeared not to notice the acts of prayer.”
Also addressed at length is Israel’s treatment of religious minorities, including detailed passages on non-Orthodox prayer at the Western Wall.
“The Israeli government did not implement a cabinet agreement reached in January to establish a Reform, Conservative, and mixed gender prayer platform along a separate portion of the Western Wall,” the report said. “Reform, Conservative, and women’s Jewish groups including some Orthodox Jewish women’s groups lobbied for the proposal, whereas ultra-Orthodox Jewish religious leaders and political figures continued to oppose the plan.”
Friedman’s efforts to promote interfaith understanding get multiple mentions.
“Embassy-hosted events, including an interfaith Ramadan iftar and an interfaith Thanksgiving dinner, promoted the reduction of tensions between religious communities and an increase in interreligious communication and partnership within society by bringing together representatives of many faith communities to advance shared goals and exchange knowledge and experience,” the report said.
It refers to the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem as “occupied.” Friedman was reported in recent weeks to have urged the State Department to drop the nomenclature, although the State Department has described the reports as erroneous.
The report also suggests that Israeli claims on Jerusalem do not necessarily extend to largely Arab eastern Jerusalem.
“The Israeli government formally annexed East Jerusalem in 1980, although no other government, including the United States, has recognized this annexation,” it says in a parenthetical aside in its Occupied Territories section. Trump had said that in recognizing the city as Israel’s capital, he was not determining a final status outcome for the city.
Violations of religious freedoms
One feature of the report was to include Palestinian terrorist attacks as possible violations of religious freedoms.
“Because religion and ethnicity were often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize much of this violence as being solely based on religious identity,” the report said by way of explanation.
In releasing the overall report, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and his department emphasized countries that have “systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom.” These included Pakistan, Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
Saudi Arabia was a notable entry: One of the Trump administration’s success stories has been the vast improvement of U.S.-Saudi relations, as opposed to tensions between the Saudis and the Obama administration. PJC