The Israeli government has voted to allow mixed prayer for women alongside men at Jerusalem's Western Wall, despite Orthodox objections. A women's reform group has called the move "groundbreaking."
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel's cabinet had reached a "creative decision" to build a new plaza for mixed gender prayer at the Jewish holy site, also known as the Wailing Wall.
The new plaza, estimated to cost around $9 million (8.3 million euros), will replace a temporary platform where for years the Women of the Wall group held monthly non-Orthodox prayers - practices regarded by ultra-Orthodox Jews as a provocation.
Shira Pruce, spokeswoman for the Women of the Wall, said the historic decision was "groundbreaking for both women's rights and Jewish pluralism in Israel" after three decades of campaigning.
For the first time the "keys to a Jewish holy site have been handed over to women," she added.
Traditional and separated men's and women's sections will remain at the Wall's northern end, while the mixed gender section will be situated at its southern end.
The Jewish Federations of North America, where liberal streams of Judaism are prevalent, said the mixed prayer decision was a "critical acknowledgement" by Israel of the need for "one wall for one people."
Administration of the Wall, long in the hands of ultra-Orthodox rabbinic authorities, will pass to a committee that will also comprise liberal rabbis and representatives of the government and the women's reform group.
Shmuel Rabinowitz, the current rabbi of the Western Wall, said he received the news "with a heavy heart and a sigh of relief" after what he termed "mass-media activity" and "incessant quarrels."
Hard-line members of Netanyahu's cabinet reiterated their opposition, with Uri Ariel of the Orthodox-leaning Jewish Home party accusing the reformists of wanting to "create conflict and dispute."
Arieh Deri of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party accused reformists of causing unnecessary strife, insisting that Israel should still be administrated by "devout Judaism."
The Western Wall in Jerusalem is considered the only standing remnant of the holiest site in Judaism. It is a retaining wall of the platform, known as the Temple Mount to Jews and the Noble Sanctuary to Muslims. The platform also houses the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock and has often been the scene of conflict.
Palestinian officials and Jordan, which is the official custodian of the mosque, have only opposed any changes to the status quo at or near the Muslim site.
Graffiti charges against Jewish teenagers
French news agency Agence France-Presse reported Sunday that Israeli prosecutors had pressed charges against three Jewish teenagers for allegedly scrawling graffiti on some of Christianity's holiest sites in Jerusalem.
On January 16, slogans were scrawled in the Via Dolorosa, where Jesus is believed to have walked to his crucifixion, and on an outside wall of the Dormition Abbey, where Christians believe the Virgin Mary died.
Similar incidents have been linked to national and Orthodox opposition to Vatican efforts to negotiate greater rights for the Upper Room, where the Last Supper is believed to have occurred.
ipj/cmk (dpa, AP, AFP)