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Archeologist says find could be prayer room

Muslims decry delay in report

JERUSALEM -- An Israeli archeologist said the site of a dig outside a disputed holy compound in Jerusalem might contain a Muslim prayer room, and the work drew renewed condemnation yesterday.

Muslim leaders and critics of the dig said the announcement of the find, three years after it was discovered, confirmed their fears that Israel is intent on hiding Muslim attachment to the site. Israeli officials denied that.

Two weeks ago, Israeli archeologists began a salvage dig ahead of the construction of a new pedestrian walkway to the disputed hilltop compound known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary. The site is at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The dig, outside the compound's Mughrabi Gate, is meant to ensure that no valuable archeological finds are damaged by the construction. But it has drawn renewed Muslim charges that Israel is planning to damage Islam's holy places.

The Israel Antiquities Authority, which is running the dig, said yesterday that the room might not be a prayer room at all, and that archeologists would know only after research was complete. If it was found to be a prayer room, a spokeswoman said, it would be carefully documented and left in place.

The Mughrabi Gate walkway, leading up an embankment of earth and ancient ruins, partially collapsed in a 2004 snowstorm. Israel says the collapse made the new construction necessary.

After the collapse, archeologists discovered a small room that was part of the embankment, according to an article published on the Antiquities Authority's website before the start of the current dig by Jerusalem district archeologist Yuval Baruch.

"In 2004, when the Mughrabi ramp collapsed, a small room was discovered which contained an alcove covered with a dome, a kind of Muslim prayer niche, facing south," Baruch wrote. "Some suggest that these are the remains of a prayer room that was part of a madrassa (a Muslim religious school) which operated near the Mughrabi gate." It was not known yet to which era the room belonged.

Adnan Husseini, chairman of the Muslim council that oversees affairs at the holy site, expressed anger that Israel withheld news of the discovery for three years. "We didn't hear anything about this," he said. "They are always hiding things."

Activists for Palestinian rights in Jerusalem said the delayed publication of the archeological find proved the Antiquities Authority has not been truthful.