Al Aqsa Mosque fire in 1969

On August 21, 1969, a huge fire swept through the Al Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. You will recall that this was the headquarters of the Knights Templar for over a century from the year 1118. In fact, a significant part of the building you see today was built by the Templars. However, in 1969, fire severely damaged part of it and the mood outside was hotter than the inferno.

The silver dome threatened to cave in, a minbar given by Saladin was destroyed, and precious medieval mosaics were damaged. But this was more than mere physical destruction. Given that the Al Aqsa Mosque is on the Temple Mount, a religious area contested by Muslims and Jews, the fire had huge sacred significance.

The incident was in the aftermath of the Six-Day-War of 1967 when Israel had overrun the Sinai Peninsula, seizing it from Egypt and taken the West Bank from Jordan. The Arab world was seething with anger and humiliation over this. Any event threatened to tip the region back into conflict. The fire at the Al Aqsa mosque was construed as yet another attack by Israel against its Arab neighbours.

Following the fire, there was a general strike throughout the West Bank and Gaza while King Hussein of Jordan held crisis talks with the Arab League. There were also calls from some Muslim leaders for a “holy war” against Israel – a jihad for vengeance.

Meanwhile at a kibbutz, a “fervent Christian” was emerging as the lead suspect…

Insane man pleads guilty to the fire

In October that year, an Australian – Denis Michael Rohan – went on trial in Israel having admitted to the arson of the mosque. He first attempted to burn it down by pouring fuel through a keyhole on August 11, but when that didn’t work, returned on August 21 to start a fire around the wooden minbar. Local worshippers later claimed they had seen him visit the mosque several times, mingling with the faithful.

The 28-year-old sheep shearer said he bribed a guard to enter the mosque before opening time on August 21, ostensibly to take photos. At which point, he prepared the fire under the medieval Islamic pulpit. Rohan then left as it began to smoulder. As he made his way through the exit, Muslims were arriving for prayer including the leader of the community in Jerusalem.

Rohan was staying at the Mishmar Hashron kibbutz near Tel Aviv where he had already made himself unpopular by not attending Hebrew classes, as promised, and not helping out in the orchards. He was part of a group from the Church of God that included a 25-year-old, Arthur Jones from California.

Both of them were aware of the belief among their associates that the building of a third Jewish Temple in Jerusalem would herald the return of Jesus Christ. Rohan specified to Jones that existing structures would need to be cleared by fire after which the anti-Christ would arrive first claiming falsely to be the Son of God.

What is the Third Temple?

The third Jewish Temple is the one yet to come. The second Jewish Temple was destroyed by the Romans. The first was demolished by the Babylonians. What you see today are the foundations of the Herodian second temple with the much smaller Al Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock sitting on top. All the Abrahamic faiths – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – venerate the Temple Mount area though for different reasons.

Rohan told Jones at the kibbutz that the Al Aqsa Mosque would be destroyed as foretold in scripture but by the hand of a local person or maybe an earthquake. When the fire took place, Jones was horrified rightly suspecting that Rohan had taken matters into his own hands. The two were in the same Christian group and Jones came to believe that Rohan had been directed by Satan to do this.

There was some misreporting at the time that the fire had destroyed the Dome of the Rock nearby. But it was definitely the Al Aqsa Mosque that experienced the blaze. Rohan had poured petrol and kerosene under the medieval, wooden minbar and set it alight. He had brought the flammable liquid into the mosque in a knapsack. Security at that time was incredibly lax compared to today.

DISCOVER: Temple Mount – HQ of the Knights Templar

Character profile of Rohan

As with many radicalised individuals, Rohan’s knowledge of scripture was actually quite scant. In fact it was a mash up of the bible with mystical and esoteric beliefs. This is a well recognised feature of theologically-based terrorism. That the perpetrators are not steeped in their faith despite claiming violent acts in the name of their god. Classic example was two young people who fled to join ISIS with their last online purchase being Islam for Dummies on Amazon. You get the drift!

Rohan had a troubled background. His father told journalists after the fire that he “couldn’t care less about him”. Life at home had been so grim that Rohan had attempted suicide with sleeping pills and been committed to a psychiatric hospital. The desperate young man turned to the Catholic church and began attending mass three times every Sunday.

He married a Catholic woman, Gloria, but needed religious instruction before the local church would conduct the wedding service. A Catholic priest, Father Brown, had found him “chatty” on religious issues but he was clearly dabbling with a variety of ideas. The marriage subsequently broke down.

It was while in a psychiatric ward that Rohan encountered The Radio Church of God, founded by preacher Herbert Armstrong who embraced modern media for proselytising in the 1930s. The Radio Church did preach that Christ would return to Jerusalem when the temple was rebuilt. They supported excavations in Jerusalem and some members insisted on observing Jewish dietary laws and celebrating the Passover.

They denied a connection to Rohan, although he bought their paper, The Plain Truth. From what Rohan said before and after the fire, he clearly believed that for the temple to be rebuilt enabling the return of Jesus, the Al Aqsa Mosque would have to be removed. When he attacked the mosque, he had switched allegiance to another sect. This was the Church of God, founded in the late 19th century by dissident Baptists and Methodists. To be clear, they did not endorse or have anything to do with Rohan’s crazy actions.

Rohan goes on trial for the Al Aqsa fire of 1969

At breakfast in the kibbutz after the fire, before Rohan turned himself in, he produced a box of matches at breakfast even though he didn’t smoke. He was keen to ensure that people knew he had been the arsonist and gave Jones a furtive glance and made a cryptic comment. After this, he confessed to local police and was put on trial. His defence was based solely on insanity. The prosecution accepted that he was mentally ill while psychiatrists ascribed his condition to “underlying sexual and erotic causes”.

The Israeli police read out a bizarre statement that Rohan made while in custody that after reading both the Old and New Testaments, he became convinced that God wanted him to rebuild the Temple. “Therefore if I am the chosen one to do this, I will have to prove this by destroying the mosque”. After the deed was done, Rohan intended to become some kind of ruler over the area – maybe a new King Solomon – and his Hebrew teacher at the kibbutz, a woman called Ziporah, would be his Queen.

Things got even weirder with Rohan insisting he was related to Queen Elizabeth II of England and both of them descended from King David of Old Testament fame. He had been persecuted by Satan all his life and only found peace on becoming God’s “agent”, Rohan explained. Well, the court had heard more than enough and an Israeli judge decided he should be detained indefinitely in a psychiatric facility. Rohan died in 1995.

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