israel wailing wall religion.jpg
Photograph: EPA/JIM HOLLANDER

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's cabinet voted Sunday in favour of erecting a section for mixed prayer for both men and women underneath the Wailing Wall, a Jewish holy site in Jerusalem, a spokesman confirmed.

The plan comes after an almost 30-year struggle by non-Orthodox Jews who have fought for extended rights for women at the holy site and for mixed services.

The Wailing Wall is considered the only standing remnant of the complex that once housed the Jewish Biblical Temple, 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.

Today the platform houses al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock shrine.

After Israel captured East Jerusalem from Jordan in 1967, it created a plaza adjacent to the wall, that includes a wide men-only and a smaller women-only prayer section.

"This is really groundbreaking for both women's rights and Jewish pluralism in Israel," said Shira Pruce, the spokeswoman of reform group Women of the Wall.

The move comes after a struggle of 27 years by the group, she said.

While the traditional men's and women's sections are at the northern end of the wall, the mixed section will be erected at its southern end.

Women of the Wall will be on the committee that is to oversee and manage the new section, along with rabbis of liberal, non-Orthodox streams in Judaism, government and Jewish Agency representatives.

"It's not going to be run by an Orthodox rabbi," said Pruce.

"So this is the first time that the keys to a Jewish holy site have been handed over to women and to Jewish leaders who are not Orthodox and that's what makes it so historic."

Orthodox rabbis and parties expressed their strong opposition to the plan.

Palestinian officials and Jordan - the official custodian of al-Aqsa mosque - have always vehemently opposed any changes to the status quo at or near the Muslim site.

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