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Who Moved the Mosques? Photo on Group’s Site Modified

Call it the case of the missing mosques.

Christians United for Israel, a rapidly growing evangelical, pro-Israel group, features on its Web site (www.cufi.org) a banner showcasing a sunrise panorama of Jerusalem’s Western Wall and the Temple Mount above it.

The only problem is that the Muslim mosques on the Temple Mount are missing.

JTA confirmed with the photographer, Michael Levit, that he removed the most prominent mosque, the golden Dome of the Rock, through Photoshop, a software that can alter images.

The Temple Mount area is holy to both Jews and Muslims, and sensitivities over the site have led to bloody clashes in recent years.

CUFI, as the pro-Israel group is known, was unaware that the photos were altered when they were selected for the Web site, the group’s executive director, David Brog, told JTA. Brog said he wants to consider other options for the site in coming days.

“If there’s a chance that the photo was doctored, then I’m not comfortable using it,” he said in an e-mail.

Brog said he approved of the photo because CUFI wanted to focus on the Western Wall. CUFI’s leader, the well-known evangelical leader Pastor John Hagee, has made inroads recently among Jewish groups that traditionally have been skeptical of evangelicals.

Hagee was perhaps the best-received speaker last month at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference, earning multiple standing ovations for his impassioned support for Israel.

Brog, who is Jewish, has argued — and even Hagee’s critics confirm — that CUFI abjures proselytizing and is driven purely by a love of Jews and Israel.

Levit’s reasons for fixing the picture present a complicated tale involving aesthetics, politics and flexible ideas about what may or may not be done with a photograph.

The Temple Mount, site of the biblical temples, is the holiest site in Judaism, but since capturing it in 1967, Israel ha! s gone t o great lengths to preserve the site’s Muslim integrity. Jewish groups are banned from praying on the mount, and former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin had Jordan’s role as custodian of the site written into Israel’s peace treaty with Jordan.

Radical Palestinian groups charge that Israel is plotting to destroy the mosques hoping to bring about the building of a third temple. Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat often showcased for journalists “evidence” of such a conspiracy, primarily consisting of the rantings of extremist nationalists who were mostly shunned — and at times even prosecuted — in Israel.

Muslims describe the site as the third holiest in Islam — partly, according to some post-Koranic Islamic commentaries, because of its holiness to Jews.

The two mosques on the site, which is currently run by an Islamic authority, are Al-Aksa and the Dome of the Rock. Both are built on spots that are part of the night flight of Mohammed, the Muslim prophet, from Mecca to Jerusalem and then to the heavens, as described in the Koran.

A number of features in the immediate vicinity of the Dome of the Rock are visible in Levit’s picture, including a set of freestanding arches and a small dome, as well as the base of the mosque’s minaret. The minaret and the familiar golden dome are missing.

CUFI had purchased the photo from the Israel Images agency. Levit’s photo, as it appears on the Israel Images Web site, does include the smaller Al-Aqsa mosque, though it is somewhat indistinct.

On the CUFI Web site, Al Aqsa is obscured by a seal that declares, “For Zion’s sake, I will not keep silent.”

Israel Talby, an editor at Israel Images, based in Haifa, explained the missing golden dome by saying that the photographer, Levit, had altered through Photoshop a small portion of his images of the Western Wall “for the beauty, the art.”

Indeed, the Mount of Olives, in the background, is higher in the photo than in reality, ! so that its spires appear to emerge from the heavens.

Levit said he removed the mosque by Photoshop “because I didn’t want it. I am a Jew. I love the Kotel,” he said, using the Hebrew name for the Western Wall.

Levit’s affection for the wall is evident in his portfolio on the Israel Images Web site: There are dozens of intimate, compelling photos of men, women, soldiers, children, the fervently Orthodox and the secular all praying at the wall.

The golden dome’s disappearance does not appear to be unambiguously political. Levit, a recent immigrant from Russia, also features in his portfolio friendly, flattering photos of Ahmed Tibi, an Israeli Arab lawmaker who was a confidant of the late Arafat.

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