On Sunday, about 700 people, including diplomats and leaders of the resistance groups Islamic Jihad and Hamas, crowded into a cultural centre in the Gaza Strip for the first day of the Al Aqsa International Competition for the Holy Quran.

 

For five days, a panel will pose questions to the 50 contestants and ask them to recite verses of the Quran from memory.

 

The competitors represented 17 countries, including Senegal, Nigeria and Holland, and the Palestinian territories. Most of the contestants do not speak Arabic, making memorisation of the holy book especially difficult.

 

Yusuf Salama, Palestinian minister of religious affairs, commended the non-Arabic speakers for learning to recite the Quran "better than us, who have Arabic as a mother tongue".

 

Muslims believe a place is secured in Heaven for those who memorise the Quran and live by its teachings.

 

Those who master a complete knowledge of the Quran and memorise its 30 chapters are given the title of shaikh.

 

"The aim of this is to show our respect to the holy book of the Quran and ... to create a new generation of believers who are following the rules of the Quran," Salama said.

 

Celebrations

 

Salama said the competition, which comes during the fasting month of Ramadan, is part of the Palestinian celebrations over the recent Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

 

The Palestinians hope the pullout will be the first step towards an independent state that includes the West Bank, with east Jerusalem as its capital. The al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam's third-holiest site, is in occupied east Jerusalem.

 

"We pray to God that next year, God willing, the competition will take place in the al-Aqsa Mosque in holy Jerusalem," Salama said.

 

The competition will end on Thursday. Winners will split about $73,000 in prize money.