Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa mosque compound reopens after more than two months

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JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque compound reopened to Muslim worshippers and visitors on Sunday after a two-and-a-half month coronavirus closure, but authorities imposed some precautions as health officials warned of an uptick in local infections.

The resumption of prayers at Islam’s third-holiest site capped a sombre period for Jerusalem’s Muslims, who this year marked the holy fasting month of Ramadan and the Eid al-Fitr holiday without their usual daily visits to Al-Aqsa and the adjoining Dome of the Rock.

“After they opened the mosque, I feel like I can breathe again. Thanks be to God,” Jerusalem resident Umm Hisham said through a face mask, her eyes tearing up, after entering the compound for dawn prayers with hundreds of other Muslims.

The Council of Islamic Waqf cited the slowed local spread of COVID-19 in lifting entry restrictions and reopening the compound’s iconic shrines, which shut on March 15.

But the council imposed some measures to reduce the risk of contagion, as new cases in Israel spiked in recent days.

Worshippers must wear face masks and bring personal prayer rugs should they wish to pray inside the shrines or on the compound’s outdoor grounds.

There did not appear to be a limit on the number of people allowed into the 35-acre (14-hectare) compound, known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount.

Around 700 worshippers were present for dawn prayers. Later in the morning, a group of Orthodox Jews, accompanied by Israeli police, entered the compound through a visitor entrance adjacent to Judaism’s holy Western Wall.

There have been 17,000 coronavirus cases and 284 deaths in Israel, and 386 cases and three deaths in the occupied West Bank.

Reporting by Rami Ayyub, Ammar Awad and Sinan Abu Mayzer; Editing by Daniel Wallis, Kirsten Donovan