KATTANKUDY: A bright gold dome mounted on an octagonal blue arcade looks like the Dome of the Rock, but the background is a modern tropical neighborhood in a coastal Sri Lankan town.

The building is a mosque modeled on the seventh-century shrine in the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in East Jerusalem — the third holiest site in Islam, after the Grand Mosque in Makkah and the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah.

Built in Kattankudy, a township near the city of Batticaloa in Sri Lanka’s Eastern Province, the three-story replica was inaugurated in December 2022.

Muslims constitute about 10 percent of Sri Lanka’s 22 million population, which is predominantly Buddhist, but in Kattankudy and neighboring areas they are a majority.

“For Friday prayers, around 2,000 to 3,000 people would pray here, on the three stories, and outside also … In Ramadan, (there is) also a big crowd,” Mahamood Lebbe Alim Mohamed Hizbullah, the mosque’s caretaker and former governor of the Eastern Province, told Arab News.

But the biggest crowds flock to the coastal town during weekends, he said, as the mosque has boosted local businesses offering halal food and accommodation.

Financed from donations, it is becoming a main tourism attraction for the region’s Muslims, most of whom may never be able to visit the original site in Palestine.

“The Muslim community, after the Easter attack, is finding it really difficult to travel,” Hizbullah said, referring to the deadly 2019 bombings on churches in Colombo.

While the attacks were claimed by Daesh militants, they prompted the Sri Lankan government to ramp up restrictions on the Muslim community.

No such restrictions are present in Kattankudy, where most of the establishments and properties are Muslim-run.

“This has become a tourist destination in the Eastern Province … (Praying here) you feel so comfortable, and you feel you are in a different place,” said Abdul Rahman Mansoor, former deputy mayor of nearby Kalmunai city.

“People like me, we are not going to Palestine, we will not get the chance, but coming here … gives us confidence and gives us hope.”

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