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Ariel Sharon and pope discuss millennium, conflict in Nazareth

ROME, April 27 (JTA) — Israeli Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon has met with Pope John Paul II and other top church officials for more than two hours on what Vatican insiders termed “cordial but difficult” talks on issues largely relating to the millennium. However, no agreement from Monday’s meeting emerged on a papal trip to the Holy Land, a potentially explosive dispute over plans to build a mosque in Nazareth or other Middle East issues, including the status of Jerusalem. “I want to be very clear, and I said this today” at the meeting, Sharon told a news conference. “Jerusalem has been the capital of the Jewish people for 3,000 years and the capital of the state of Israel for 51. It will never be divided. It will always be the only and indivisible capital of Israel.” In the past, the Vatican has suggested that Jerusalem become either an internationally mandated holy city or the capital of both Israel and an eventual Palestinian state. Vatican officials have called the Israeli occupation of eastern Jerusalem “illegal.” Sharon had a 30-minute private audience with the pope followed by what the Vatican called a more-than-90-minute “working meeting” with Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano and other senior Vatican officials. A Vatican statement said talks centered on “the tormented peace process in the Middle East, on the conditions of the presence and activity of the Catholic church in the country, as well as on the necessary cooperation in view of the celebration” of the millennium. Sharon renewed Israel’s longstanding invitation for the pope to visit the Holy Land, saying he hoped he would realize his dream of visiting sites during the millennium year. “He wants to come and we want him to come,” he said. “We hope it happens. We want him to be the first pilgrim, first in every way.” He also guaranteed safety and freedom of movement for Christians pilgrims to all Holy Land sites under Israeli jurisdiction. The tense situation in Nazareth, he said, was high on the agenda. “I came to hear the position of the Catholic church,” he said. “I am convinced that a solution will be found. We have discussed the issue.” Nazareth, revered by Christians as the boyhood home of Jesus, is Israel’s largest Arab city. Muslims want to build a large mosque on land in Nazareth near the Church of the Annunciation, the site where Christians believe the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she would give birth. Christians oppose this plan and, with the Vatican’s backing, Christian churches in the region have threatened to close their doors if Israel approves construction of the mosque. Violent clashes broke out over the affair during Easter. The dispute is threatening to disrupt millennium celebrations there.

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