JERUSALEM (Ma'an) -- Thousands of Turkish citizens are visiting Islamic religious sites in occupied East Jerusalem on a yearly basis despite the obstacles they face, and the numbers are only set to increase in coming years.
Thousands of Turks visit the Al-Aqsa compound in particular each year, especially during Islamic holidays, despite the intensive and invasive searches they often face by Israeli security personnel.
Around 3,000 Turkish citizens recently came to Jerusalem to celebrate the day in the Islamic calendar that marks the Prophet Muhammad's ascension to heaven, known as Isra and Miraj, a member of the Graduates' Committee of Turkey told Ma'an recently.
Moussa Hijazi, who is a tour guide specializing in Turkish tours to Jerusalem, said that many Turks come to Al-Aqsa because of its connection with the "miracle" of ascension.
Many Muslims believe that the Al-Aqsa mosque compound marks the site where the Prophet ascended to the heavens on the night of Miraj, after arriving from Mecca in a journey called Isra after the archangel Gabriel arrived to him.
The Prophet is believed to have prayed in the area of the compound before ascending to heaven and meeting with previous prophets and being instructed by God, making the area the third-holiest in Islam after Mecca and Medina.
He highlighted that many Turks, however, were still reluctant to visit Jerusalem after a fatwa by the influential Egyptian sheikh Yousef Qaradawi, who forbade visits to Jerusalem as a form of "normalization" with the Israeli occupation.
Despite the fatwa and the fact that Turks, like other residents of predominantly Arab or Muslim countries that maintain relations with Israel, have not historically visited in large numbers, the number of Turkish citizens arriving every year has increased in recent years.
Hijazi explained that the numbers of Turks visiting Al-Aqsa increased after imams inside and outside of Jerusalem encouraged them to visit in order to counteract attempts at "Judaizing" the compound and the Old City more broadly by Jewish extremists.
Residents of Jerusalem who participated in the holiday of Isra and Miraj alongside the Turkish visitors expressed their joy at having them, and distributed sweets to them, while the Turkish visitors handed out Turkish delights and gave local children toys.
Hijazi said that the visit of the Turkish people reflects their love for Jerusalem, and their respect for the residents of the city, "who have Al-Aqsa," despite the odds placed before them by the occupation.
The head of the Turkish delegation at Al-Aqsa Mustafa Siraj said the interest of Turkish people to visit Jerusalem has increased in recent years, especially in order to mark this holiday.
Siraj told Ma'an that the occasion was often celebrated in Turkey by decorating the minarets of mosques with lanterns, and that the pilgrims visiting Jerusalem celebrated with Turkish-style lanterns, religious hymns, and sermons.
A Turkish participant named Elif told Ma'an: "We sympathize completely with Al-Aqsa. We are happy and sad at the same time; happy to be inside the Al-Aqsa mosque on the occasion of the Isra and Miraj and sad because when we came to pray at dawn in Al-Aqsa we were prevented by the police."
She added that Turkish people prefer to mark the occasion at Al-Aqsa "because our Prophet Mohammad ascended from the Sacred Mosque (in Mecca) to Al-Aqsa mosque, and then to heaven, as mentioned in al-Isra verse. It is a holy and blessed occasion."