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The Supreme Court has cleared the way for a temple to be built at a site hotly disputed for centuries by Hindus and Muslims. A mosque at the site was razed by Hindu mobs in 1992, when deadly riots killed 2,000 people.
India's top court on Saturday ruled in favor of Hindus in the decadeslong land title dispute between Hindus and Muslims in the far-north town of Ayodhya.
The Supreme Court ruled that the site where Hindu mobs destroyed a 460-year-old mosque in 1992 must be handed over to a trust to oversee the construction of a Hindu temple, subject to conditions.
A separate 2-hectare (5-acre) piece of land in the town should be given over to Muslim groups to build a new mosque, the court said.
The disputed land, which lies 550 kilometers (340 miles) east of New Delhi, was the site of the 16th-century Babri Masjid mosque. Its razing led to riots in which more than 2,000 people, most of them Muslims, were killed.
The five-judge bench, which had been sitting since August, observed that the destruction of the mosque was a violation of the law. However, its ruling was unanimous.
Longstanding Hindu claim
Hindus claim Lord Ram — a physical incarnation of their god Vishnu — was born in Ayodhya, and a temple in his name predated the mosque.
They say that in the 16th century, Babur, the first emperor of the Mughal Islamic dynasty, built a mosque on top of the structure.
Hindus have campaigned for years to build a new temple at the site, while Muslims want a new mosque.
In 2010, a lower court ruled that the disputed land should be divided into three parts — two for Hindus and one for Muslims.
That was challenged in the Supreme Court by the two communities represented by Hindu Maha Sabha, the Sunni Waqf Board, and the Nirmohi Akhara.
Giving his initial reaction to Saturday's ruling, Zafaryab Jilani, a lawyer for the Sunni Waqf Board, said: "We respect the verdict, but we are not satisfied ... we will go through the judgment carefully."
The Ayodhya issue has regularly provoked tensions between majority Hindus and Muslims, who account for about 14% of India's 1.3 billion population.
Modi calls for calm
Ahead of the verdict, Prime Minister Narendra Modi urged calm and security was tightened around the Supreme Court building in New Delhi and in Ayodhya, where 5,000 paramilitary forces were deployed.
"Whatever the decision of the Supreme Court ... it will not be a victory or defeat for anyone. My appeal to fellow countrymen is our collective priority should be that this decision further strengthens the great tradition of peace, unity and goodwill in India," he wrote on Twitter.
Modi had promised to build the temple while campaigning for the 2014 election that first saw him win office. Despite pressure from Hindu hard-liners, he later decided to wait for the court ruling.
Saturday's ruling will be seen as a political victory for Modi, who began a second term after a landslide general election win this year.
Hindu groups said ahead of the ruling that they would not hold celebratory processions, to avoid provoking violence.
mm/aw (AFP, AP, dpa)