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Nazareth Mosque Dispute Leaves Israel in Uncomfortable Position

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A long-standing dispute between Muslims and Christians here over the building of a mosque next to the Church of the Annunciation is fast entangling the Israeli government, whose attempts to mollify the situation have served only to ignite it.

The implications may be grave as this Muslim-Christian conflict reignites now, while Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon weathers international criticism for barring Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat from Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem. And they stretch far beyond this sleepy Galilee city of 70,000.

Virtually all the Christian denominations in Israel convened in Jerusalem two weeks ago to present a united front against the building of a mosque on a plot originally slated to become a municipal square.

In addition, the Vatican has condemned Israel’s decision to allow the mosque to be built.

The dispute comes as the Jewish state and the Palestinian Authority, which is predominantly Muslim, spar for the title of protector of Christian holy sites in the Holy Land.

If built, the mosque will sit at the foot of the Church of the Annunciation, one of the holiest sites in Christendom and a Nazareth landmark since its completion in 1968.

“This is the first time in 500 years that the churches posed a united front on any one issue, so grave is the situation,” said Danny Kopp, a spokesman for the Coalition of Churches.

To varying degrees, almost every Christian denomination is involved, from the Catholic representative of Palestinian nationalism, Michel Sabbah, to the Christian Zionists.

“At first,” Kopp said, “Sharon was promising that this project would be scrapped only over his dead body, but when” the Islamic Movement in Israel “began to build, we were forced to regroup.”

Two weeks ago, after an intense letter-writing campaign to the U.S. Senate initiated by the coalition’s American chapter, a court order was issued to stop the building.

Preceding this move were two conversations President Bush held with Sharon urging him to stop the mosque project. The pressure seemed to have worked.

Despite the court order, however, building continued on the Nazareth mosque even on Christmas Day, according to a JTA investigation.

Fearing a Muslim backlash, Israeli police refused to intervene, even after the Coalition of Churches filed numerous complaints, Kopp said.

“We have pictures of” the Islamic Movement “hauling out bones from Jewish graves and huge Roman columns, but no one has done anything to stop it,” Kopp said.

The government’s greatest fear is that the churches would not support it even if construction was halted and rioting started, said Raphael Israeli of the Hebrew University, one of four members on a 1998 commission of inquiry that studied the dispute.

Riots last October in which police killed 13 Israeli Arabs only intensifies the fear.

The sad fact is that failure to stop construction “will bring unrest to all of the Christian organizations in the world,” Israeli said. “But the Muslims would also despise Israel, because it used force and because it had once submitted, which is a sign of odious weakness” in Muslim eyes.

Israeli, the only commission member to vote against construction of the mosque, believes that Israel must remove the Islamic Movement from the lot, “even by force, even if the cost is high.”

Elana Kaufman, an expert on Arab political behavior at Tel Aviv University, believes that realpolitik, not legality, informed the government’s decision.

“In a way, the government thought the Muslim list would throw some precious votes their way. Or they thought the favor would somehow be returned, perhaps by a pacification of rhetoric,” she said. “But apparently that is not the case.”

The man in charge of the mosque has vowed to see the construction through at any cost. Salman Abu Ahmad, the city’s deputy mayor and the head of the Islamic Movement’s political wing, sits in an easy chair in the Islamic Movement tent on the disputed lot.

Abu Ahmad sees only one catalyst for the controversy — “international pressure” born of growing anti-Islamic sentiment in the West.

“What, is Bush crazy?” Ahmad asked. “What does Bush or the pope have to do with local building policies? Are we the only city in the world that has a mosque near a church?

“The way they are treating this issue it is as if we are going to be the next target after Afghanistan or Iraq,” he said. “They are treating this matter as if we are going to build an atom bomb in the basement of the mosque.”

When asked why construction continued, despite the court order against it, Abu Ahmad said, “it’s not construction. It’s nothing more than maintenance.”

Abu Ahmad claims the land has been in Muslim hands for centuries.

“What, did the Jews bring this land with them from Poland?” he asked. “No, this land belonged to the Wakf,” the religious trust that administers Islamic holy sites. “It was Palestinian land before 1948. There was a Muslim school here, which I attended, and inside that was always a mosque.”

Not so, claims Uri Mor, former director of the Christian communities department at the Religious Affairs Ministry.

Until the Nazareth municipality planned the city square in 1997, the site was a dilapidated lot of no interest to the Islamic Movement, Uri said.

“Only 200 of the 700 meters of that plot belong to the Wakf. That is a fact, and it is for the government only to decide what to do with it,” he said.

The government’s most grievous mistake was its failure to consult the Christian community until it had already ceded the land, Mor said. When the Islamic Movement launched a “pogrom” against the Christian community in Nazareth in March 1999, the government should have clamped down, and “kicked the Islamists out,” Mor said.

Kaufman believes the Islamic Movement’s efforts to build a mosque on the site are politically motivated.

“It is not about religion, which is used as a battle standard by the Islamic side of the conflict,” she said. “This is a sectarian dispute in which the Muslims fill the middle and lower classes, and finally felt powerful enough to take control of the city from the upper-class Christians.”

Kaufman says the mosque is becoming the main battle standard of the Islamic Movement all over Israel, and that Arab Knesset members, who might otherwise have been sympathetic to the Christian cause, are being swept away by their increasingly radicalized electorate.

Abu Ahmad expressed amazement that international pressure from the church coalition could overturn the findings of a ministerial committee, headed by Internal Security Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami when Ehud Barak was Israel’s prime minister.

“Both the right-wing government of” Benjamin Netanyahu “and the left-wing Barak government agreed to this, so I ask you, why is our permit being blocked, why do we have to appeal before the High Court of Justice?” Abu Ahmad asked. “Is this the first mosque to be built near a church?”

For the Coalition of Churches, the issue has nothing to do with building mosques.

“The main issue is that a group known for its violent practices and suppression of Christians and moderate Muslims is given a governmental kosher stamp for stealing land,” Kopp said.

“This an obvious green light for them to continue bullying and intimidation, and the police do nothing,” he said. “If we don’t stop this Taliban-like group, it will be encouraged to continue abusing Christians, who are a minority within a minority.”

Revoking the “kosher stamp” for the mosque will not be easy.

“If someone threatens to take away our land, that we cannot accept. We will launch a 50,000 person general strike, we will sit in front of the Prime Minister’s Office, we will do everything — everything — in our power to stop that,” Abu Ahmad warned.

Implicit in his words is a threat that the backlash from ending the mosque project could be used as a platform for another riot of Israel’s Arab citizens, Mor said.

“Israel is stuck in the middle, with the Muslims and Christians breathing down its neck — and the whole world watching in anger.”

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