ROME, Nov. 28 (JTA) — Israel’s attempt to defuse a Christian-Muslim conflict in Nazareth has soured its relations with the Vatican and called into question a visit to the town by the pope during his millennium pilgrimage to the Holy Land next March.
Nazareth is revered by Christians as the boyhood home of Jesus, but today it is Israel’s largest Arab town and some 60 percent of its 65,000 residents are Muslim.
The conflict centers on plans to construct a mosque in Nazareth near the Basilica of the Annunciation, believed by Christians to be the spot where the Archangel Gabriel announced to Mary that she would bear the son of God.
Israel granted the go-ahead for the mosque after two years of mounting tensions and violent clashes over the issue between local Christians and Muslims.
Muslims laid the cornerstone for the mosque on Nov. 23, although Israeli sources said actual construction would not begin until next year.
Churches throughout the Holy Land shut their doors for two days, Nov. 22 and 23, in protest, and the Vatican lashed out at Israel for allowing construction.
“The decision of the Israeli government seems to lay the groundwork for future contrasts and tensions between the two religious communities, Christian and Islamic,” the Vatican’s chief spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, said in an unusually strongly worded statement that coincided with the laying of the mosque’s cornerstone.
“I believe that political authorities in this case have a great responsibility, because instead of favoring unity, they create the foundation to foment division,” he said.
Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy reacted strongly to the Vatican’s criticism.
The Vatican statement, he told Israel Radio, is “very grave,” adding, “We reject it.”
The Anti-Defamation League, too, took the Vatican to task. In a statement, it said it was “shocked and saddened at the Vatican pronouncements laying blame on Israel for tensions between Muslims and Christians in Nazareth.”
The statement said that while both sides may not be satisfied, “no one should question Israel’s good faith efforts in this matter.”
The conflict erupted two years ago, when municipal authorities in Nazareth unveiled plans to build a large plaza near the Basilica of the Annunciation to accommodate the millions of pilgrims expected during the year 2000 — a Holy Year for the Catholic Church.
Local Muslims protested this plan, saying the planned plaza would damage the tomb of Shehab el-Din, nephew of the 12th-century Muslim hero Saladin. They set up an illegal protest tent and demanded that a mosque be built. Violent clashes over the issue erupted last spring.
The Israeli government was forced to step in and take action after local authorities failed to agree on a solution and the conflict spread to involve broader Christian and Muslim interests. Each side put pressure on the government and accused the other side of using threats.
Jerusalem’s Higher Islamic Committee and the Palestinian Authority opposed the construction of the mosque, and Yasser Arafat even sent emissaries who tried, unsuccessfully, to mediate.
On Friday, Israel’s ambassador to the Vatican, Aharon Lopez, told reporters that Israel’s decision to allow construction of the mosque is an attempt to reach a compromise and avoid bloodshed.
“If there was any purpose to the government decision it was the opposite of fomenting division,” he said. “It was a decision that would lead to restoring coexistence and harmony between Muslims and Christians.”
He said that the issue had been blown out of proportion, and that the mosque would not encroach on Christian property nor hinder access to the Basilica.
Most of the plaza intended for pilgrims would remain open, he said, and the mosque itself would be much smaller than Muslims had demanded originally.
It will be located at a corner of the plaza on land encompassing the tomb of Shehab el-Din.
The Vatican announced Nov. 18 that Pope John Paul II would fulfill his long-held dream and make a pilgrimage to biblical sites in the Holy Land in the last 10 days of March.
Ordinarily, Nazareth would be one of the stops on such a trip, but no itinerary was immediately released. Sources said the pope might skip Nazareth if the situation remains tense.
Levy said he hopes the conflict over the mosque would not disrupt the papal pilgrimage.
“I think that after things are clarified with people here and with the Vatican, it will become clear that everything Israel has done has stemmed from a concern to settle the dispute, lower tensions and achieve understanding,” he said.