Photographs and videos posted by a Russian-born Israeli Jew of his visit to a holy site in Saudi Arabia prompted angry comments from Muslim users on social media leading Facebook Inc's photo-sharing app Instagram to suspend his account, Times of Israel reported on Tuesday.
Ben Tzion, 31, visited mosques in Iran, Lebanon, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and shared photographs and videos of his visits on his social media account, the daily reported.
A photograph posted by Tzion ─ who describes travelling as a hobby ─ inside Masjid-i-Nabawi in Madinah was viewed more than 30,000 times, received 3,500 comments and prompted backlash from certain individuals on social media, leading Instagram to suspend his account, according to Times of Israel.
The photograph shows Tzion wearing traditional Arab garb, which he says he bought in Jerusalem, and pointing to his name embroidered in Hebrew on his tefillin — a ritual object of Judaism.
In response to the photograph, Muslims protested the presence of a non-Muslim at the holy site. Non-Muslims are barred from visiting Makkah and advised not to enter parts of central Madinah.
According to Times of Israel, some social media users remarked that while Saudi Arabia had barred Qatari's from entering the country, it "apparently has no quarrel with Israeli Jews".
The Arabic hashtag "A Zionist at the Prophet's Mosque" has attracted more than 90,000 tweets in the 24 hours, BBC reported on Tuesday.
"The scholars are in prisons and the Zionists are at the Prophet's Mosque. It is a sad thing," said one Twitter user in Arabic, BBC said.
The reaction to Tzion's images follows news reports that Israel has secret ties with 'many' Arab, Muslim states.
In a rare interview with a Saudi-owned news site earlier this week, an Israeli cabinet minister said that the country was obligated not to name the Arab and Muslim states it has "covert" ties with.
A message of respect
Speaking to the daily, Tzion stressed that "he is coming as a friend and has respect for Islam and the Arab world." Tzion added that his message is one of respect for other cultures and faiths.
He said that the people he had encountered on his travels to Tehran, Qom, Beirut or Riyadh were friendly towards him, despite his nationality and religion.
“No one in the Arab world ever approached me with hostility,” the daily quoted Tzion as saying.
“People know that I am different, they see that I wear a kippah or a different Arab garment. They come to me and ask me where I’m from. I tell them that I’m from Jerusalem, Israel. And their first reaction usually is: ‘Wow. Welcome.’”
According to the daily, he said he was aware of the angry comments on social media in response to his photograph but added that "among regular people, there is no hatred."
“When I am going to a holy site, I go there with respect, with dignity and love toward people. Not with hatred or mockery or trying to be, in any way, shape, or form, disrespectful. This would be the last of my intentions. I go there as a friend," Times of Israel quoted Tzion as saying.
The daily added that, on his visits to Muslim countries, Tzion never hid his identity as a Jew.
"I carried these tefillin in my hands. I didn’t remove it from the box; it was in my hand when I entered the mosque. Wherever I go, I take this bag with me. I don’t have a wallet, so I carry some of my stuff in this bag,” Tzion was further quoted as saying. “I wasn’t hiding anything. People knew I was Jewish.”
“No one would ever harm me inside a mosque. I didn’t have any intention to be disrespectful," said Tzion, who, according to Times of Israel, left Saudi Arabia a few days ago and has not disclosed his current location.