Al-Aqsa preacher's voice echoes across Jerusalem devoid of Ramadan crowds

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JERUSALEM (Reuters) - An imam standing atop an 18-foot pulpit in a near-empty Al-Aqsa Mosque delivered the first Friday prayers of Ramadan in Jerusalem, his voice echoing across an empty and windswept plateau almost devoid of worshippers.

In historic scenes rarely, if ever, witnessed at the third holiest site in Islam, below him kneeled only a handful of Muslim clerics in facemasks, staying several feet apart because of coronavirus restrictions.

“We ask God to have mercy on us and all of humanity and to save us from this lethal pandemic,” the imam said.

In normal years during Ramadan Friday prayers Muslim worshippers gather by the tens of thousands on the tree-lined hilltop plateau that lies at the heart of Jerusalem’s Old City and is known to Muslims as al-Haram al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary) and to Jews as the Temple Mount.

But this year the 35-acre compound around Al-Aqsa Mosque and the golden Dome of the Rock was almost deserted, just a tiny handful of faithful standing in a short line, rising and kneeling in unison.

Few also turned up outside the walls of the Old City, just 10 people - the maximum allowed by Israeli authorities - praying outside Lion’s Gate facing the Mount of Olives.

Israel has reported nearly 15,000 cases of coronavirus, with 193 deaths. In the Palestinian Territories around 350 cases have been confirmed, with two fatalities.

In March, Muslim religious authorities closed the gates to worshippers due to the coronavirus epidemic, and this has been extended throughout Ramadan.

Jewish and Christian religious authorities have imposed similar precautionary measures at their holy sites, including the Western Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Reporting by Stephen Farrell; Editing by Giles Elgood