‘Zionist imam’ who condemns antisemitism gives main Hajj address in Mecca

Saudi Crown Prince overrides objections to pick Sheikh Mohammad al-Issa, who made waves two years ago when he visited Auschwitz.

By Batya Jerenberg, World Israel News

An imam known for his conciliatory views of Judaism and Christianity aroused fierce controversy in Saudi Arabia when he was chosen to deliver the main address during the hajj Friday in one of Mecca’s most important mosques.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known by his initials MBS, personally chose Sheikh Dr. Mohammad al-Issa, overcoming the objections of senior clerics who did not want to honor a man whom they feel is too friendly to Jews.

Hundreds of others reacted angrily to the choice, including Muslim clerics in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Some said al-Issa shouldn’t be allowed to enter the Namirah Mosque because his contact with Jews made him “impure.”

Al-Issa is one of the senior clerics in the kingdom who in the past has served as its justice minister. Those close to MBS said that this promotion in stature is a further stage in Saudi Arabia becoming more open to other countries.

Younger Saudis applauded the move, calling on Twitter, for example, for MBS to continue on “the right path” of integrating more with the Western world.

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Al-Issa is the head of the Muslim World League, a non-governmental organization that promotes a moderate and tolerant version of Islam. He consistently speaks of Islam as a religion of peace and the need for people of all faiths to work with each other instead of against each other.

He has openly acknowledged the “unconscionable crimes” of the Holocaust while leading a group of coreligionists to Auschwitz in January 2020. He has invited rabbis to the kingdom, and has publicly condemned antisemitism.

In Saudi Arabia, he is known as “the Zionist imam.”

On Mount Ararat, the focal point of the annual hajj that this year was limited to a million pilgrims, he spoke of adhering to the five pillars of the Muslim faith and used his platform to urge his audience to “comply with the values taught by Islam.”

These, he said, include “avoiding all that leads to dissent, animosity, or division; and instead, ensuring that our interactions are dominated by harmony and compassion.”

“The teachings of Islam have an inherent humanitarian nature…each individual among you should love what is good for all people, and strive to bring their hearts together,” he added.

Al-Issa received awards for combatting antisemitism from New York’s Orthodox flagship Yeshiva University and the American Sephardi Federation in the past two years. At the latter’s virtual 2020 ceremony, he said, “In the Muslim League we are proud to stand shoulder to shoulder with our Jewish and Christian brothers and sisters to build understanding, respect, love and interreligious harmony.”

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Speaking in person at Yeshiva University last October, he said, “We may have differences, but we must have love for one another and come together.”

Diversity, he added, “should be a tool used for better understanding and better relationships, and not a tool to make people grow apart.”

Israeli media pundits have theorized that by choosing al-Issa to speak soon before U.S. President Joe Biden’s planned trip to Israel and Saudi Arabia this week, MBS is sending a positive signal to the White House regarding a possible additional thawing of  relations with the Jewish state.