JERUSALEM-The Israeli Government has angered church leaders and Muslims by announcing approval for the construction of a new mosque next to a major Christian holy site in Nazareth, the town where Jesus spent his childhood.
There have also been suggestions that the plans for the mosque could affect a visit to Nazareth by Pope John Paul II, tentatively scheduled for next year.
The new mosque is to face the Basilica of the Annunciation, a church built on the site where, according to Christian tradition, the Angel Gabriel told Mary she would give birth to Jesus.
The plan is strongly opposed by some Christian leaders in the Holy Land, who have privately threatened to close churches at Christmas this year and force the cancellation of the Pope's planned visit during the year 2000.
The announcement follows a dispute which began when a plot of land, formerly the site of a school near the basilica, was designated by the Nazareth municipality to serve as a plaza for the large numbers of pilgrims expected to arrive in the Holy Land for celebrations to mark the new millennium.
More than a year ago, Muslim activists seized part of the land, claiming that the school, which had been demolished, once housed a mosque, and that the entire plot belonged to the Wakf, an Islamic religious trust. On Christmas Day last year and at Easter this year violent clashes erupted at the site between Muslims and Christians.
Israel's Public Security Minister, Shlomo Ben-Ami, released details of the new plan last week shortly after meeting Christian and Muslim groups from Nazareth. Ben-Ami said the mosque must be limited to 700 square meters. A large barrier would be built between the mosque and the church, a Muslim protest tent currently on the site would be removed next month, and extra police would be posted in the area.
He said a police station would be established in the location to provide security for tourists and pilgrims -whether they attend the mosque or the basilica.
“This is the basis of our resolution and we expect the two parties to accept them,” he said. “If they do not accept them, we will have to take unilateral steps.”
Ben-Ami said construction of the mosque would begin after planned millennium celebrations which may include a visit by Pope John Paul in March next year.
The announcement about the mosque also drew criticism from Muslim officials. While generally supporting the proposed size of the mosque, they immediately criticized other details of the plan and warned there could be violence in Nazareth if it was implemented.
Many Christian leaders in the Holy Land argue that it is not appropriate to build a mosque so close to one of the most important sites in Christianity.
Ecumenical News International has obtained a copy of a letter sent last month to the Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Barak and signed by the Greek Orthodox Patriarch Diodoros, the Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah, the Armenian Patriarch, Torkom Manogian, and the Custos (Roman Catholic Custodian) of the Holy Land, Giovanni Batistelli.
“We believe that the place currently proposed for the building of a mosque — besides being a government-owned property — is not compatible with the larger vision of peace and harmony amongst all the faith communities in Nazareth, and will remain an unfortunate source of friction and dispute in future,” the letter states. “With the upsurge of Christian pilgrimages and tourism only a few short months away, we believe that Israel should act decisively in order to resolve once and for all this dispute so that Nazareth can regain its authentic character as the City of the Annunciation — an open and welcoming city for all.”
These sentiments were echoed by Wadie Abu Nassar, executive director of the office of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000 of the Assembly of Catholic Bishops of the Holy Land. He said that the issue could affect plans by the Pope to visit the Holy Land in March.
Pope John Paul's envoy to Israel, Monsignor Pietro Sambi, has lashed out at the plan to build a mosque in the town where Jesus grew up, calling the idea “provocative.” If a mosque was needed, it should be built somewhere else, he said.
Another letter, also signed by Patriarch Michel Sabbah, has been sent to the Israeli President, Ezer Weizman, on behalf of church leaders in Jerusalem. In it the patriarch said that the plan to build a mosque near the Christian shrine of Jesus' boyhood home of Nazareth was an act of discrimination against Christians. “We deplore this decision,” he wrote. “It is the legitimization of and approbation of all threats, insults and attacks against Christians carried out to date by the Islamic group leading the campaign to build the mosque.”
The Vatican backed up the patriarch's complaint with strong statements of its own, saying the proposal to erect a mosque at the site is a hindrance to preparations for a visit by Pope John Paul to the Holy Land and Nazareth in particular. “It is not superfluous to observe that such a situation does not help in the preparation of a possible pilgrimage by the Holy Father to that illustrious sanctuary,” the Vatican spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls said.
A Muslim leader from Nazareth, Aziz Shehadeh, said: “There will be bloodshed.
There will be something which people will remember for the coming 50 years. There will be tension in the city ,and there will be tension with Israeli authorities, and this will create tension in the city among all the citizens.”
Salman Abu-Ahmad, a leader of the Islamic Movement in Israel and a member of the city council in Nazareth, he said. He objected to a police station being placed in the middle of the square.
“We are against putting a wall around the mosque. We are against a ‘Berlin’ wall in Nazareth,” he said. “We would also like to begin the building of the mosque immediately.”