“There was an effort to completely suppress not only any expression of religious conviction, but any articulation of historical reality,” Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ), co-chairman of the Israel Allies Foundation’s congressional caucus recounted, saying the harassment “shows the fundamental dynamics of the greater contention throughout the Middle East.”
Franks, Rep. Keith Rothfus (R-PA), Rep. Evan Jenkins (R-WV) and his wife Elizabeth Jenkins, are members of a delegation organized by the Israel Allies Foundation, an umbrella organization supporting 33 parliamentary caucuses around the world that mobilize political support for Israel based on Judeo-Christian values.
As part of the delegation’s trip to the Middle East, the group took a tour of the Temple Mount that was constantly interrupted by shouting, first by Arab men in the plaza and then by Waqf staff.
“We walked up there,” Rothfus recounted, “and were almost immediately approached by several men who started shouting. We were tracked the entire time we were there and found these individuals surprisingly intolerant and belligerent.”
The delegation said the harassment began when they ascended the Mount, and Mrs. Jenkins, who was wearing a calf-length skirt and a long-sleeved shirt was yelled at that she needed to cover up more, and police were needed to break up the melee and clear the way for the group to continue the visit.
The delegation’s guide then began to speak about the history of the site, which is holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims, but is controlled by Jordan and the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf. When the guide showed the group a map of Israel, a man who was cleaning nearby notified another man in the area, who asked the guide questions about the maps and diagrams, demanding to be shown if any of them feature the Temple, and told him he cannot use the term “Temple Mount,” only “Dome of the Rock,” as can be seen in a video the group provided to The Jerusalem Post.
“Our guide was very respectful but very appropriately strong in his convictions. He was not confrontational, but handled it very appropriately,” Jenkins said.
Soon after, 15-20 men began to harass the group, interrupting the tour guide, shouting and pointing, and once again police had to break up the commotion.
The guide “let us know that men running around with walkie-talkies are not the final authority,” Jenkins recounted. “Despite the screaming and shouting and pointing of men with walkie-talkies, the police were able to exercise their authority and let us proceed comfortably.”
For the rest of their visit to the Temple Mount, the group was followed by Muslim men.
EJ Kimball, Director of US Operations for the Israel Allies Foundation said the congressional delegation “wasn’t doing anything controversial, no one was even wearing a yarmulke. [The Muslims on the Mount] did a good job of making everyone feel very uncomfortable just for being up there as a non-Muslim.”
On their way out, the delegation saw a group of Jewish visitors confronted by a Muslim group crowding around them and shouting Allahu Akbar. The Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel pays Murbitat, meaning protectors of holy places, who harass non-Muslim visitors, thousands of shekels every month. The groups of Murbitat are often led by women dressed head-to-toe in black, with their faces covered.
Jenkins said he had mixed emotions after the visit to the Temple Mount.
“It was a place of great religious meaning to me as a Christian, a destination…that me and my wife were looking forward to, and then to have the confrontation from the Muslims who yelled and shouted at us and my wife individually…To literally step on the Temple Mount and be confronted was certainly shocking,” Jenkins recounted.
The congressman from West Virginia called the experience “unsettling,” saying that “in America we watch conflict around the world on the evening news. It’s unfortunate to walk on to the Temple Mount and see conflict not half a world away, but feet away.”
Jenkins said that he believes in tolerance and acceptance of all religions, but that is not what he saw at a site that is so religiously significant.
As a Christian raised on the stories of the Bible and New Testament, Franks said visiting the mount was “exhilarating and meaningful beyond words,” but that the experience was marred by the harassment, “a reminder of challenges both in micro and macro that the people of Israel face every day.”
“I wish it was something the world understood more and was more aware of,” Franks said. “Even when visiting a historical site there is harassment, because of people who want to rewrite history.”
Franks added that, while he does not question Israeli policies because they have experience in dealing with the problems on the Temple Mount, he found that “in general, when there is a lack of resolve in protecting religious freedoms, it emboldens those who have no compunction about suppressing it.”
When asked if he felt his freedom of expression was violated, Rothfus said “certainly.”
“We weren’t doing anything religious. We were learning the history of the Temple Mount,” he stated.
Rothfus plans to share his experience, and said of the harassers: “Maybe the folks who were behaving like this might want to do some self-examination. They really are not presenting themselves as very good ambassadors for their cause.”
The purpose of the delegation’s trip to the Middle East is “to gain a better perspective of the opposition to the Iranian nuclear deal and the increased cooperation between Israel and its Arab neighbors against shared threats from jihadist groups,” Kimball said. The group traveled to Egypt before Israel, where the congressmen met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after its trip to the Temple Mount.