JERUSALEM (BP)–President Bush and Pope John Paul II should mind their own business regarding the construction of a controversial mosque in Nazareth or there could be trouble there, the city’s deputy mayor said Jan. 15, CNSNews.com reported.
Both Bush and the pope have called on the Israeli government to rescind an earlier decision to permit the construction. They want to prevent the building of a mosque near the Basilica of the Annunciation, where tradition says the Angel Gabriel visited Mary with the news that she would bear the promised Messiah, Jesus.
Observers here say that Israel is in a very tight spot. If it prevents the mosque construction, the Islamic world could be inflamed even more than it is against Israel. If it allows the construction, the Christian world and the West will be angry.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon appointed a committee in early January to come up with an alternative plan within 14 days for building the mosque, where the foundations have already been laid without a building permit.
“I’m totally against building a mosque there,” Sharon told a gathering of foreign reporters. “We appointed a committee that should provide us with an answer to this issue within a short time.”
Several years ago, when the issue first came up, Sharon as Israel’s National Infrastructure minister, offered an alternative solution and warned against giving permission for the mosque to be built in that spot.
“We were ready to provide land and everything which is needed in order to build a mosque [at another location in Nazareth],” Sharon said.
“There is enough room for a mosque [in Nazareth] and of course it doesn’t have any intention whatsoever to harm the Muslims. [But] I never thought that in this place such a provocative step should be taken,” he added.
But Salman Abu Ahmed, deputy mayor of Nazareth and head of the political department of a Muslim group known as the Islamic Movement, said the movement in Nazareth is not willing to compromise on the site for a new mosque.
“It is a very important place,” Abu Ahmed said in a telephone interview. “It is holy land for Muslims as the same place as [the] church is a holy place for Christians.”
What makes the place holy, he said, is the grave of Shihab al-Din, nephew of great Islamic warrior Saladin, who defeated and ousted the Crusaders from the Holy Land in the year 1187.
A few hundred years later the Ottoman Turks, who were then in charge, built a tiny school with a mosque in it near the grave. The dilapidated school, which was not in use, was demolished by the city in 1987 to make way for the building of a piazza to hold pilgrims visiting the nearby basilica expected to visit during the millennium.
Tempers flared in the city resulting in violent attacks on Christians there on at least two occasions. To calm the situation, the Israeli government stepped in with a compromise plan, granting the Muslims some 700 meters of the 2000-square meter plot for a new mosque. Only 135 square meters was officially registered as Islamic land there.
Christian leaders around the world, including the pope, opposed the construction of the mosque some 1,500 feet below the basilica and called it a provocation. Bush also asked Sharon last year to intervene when the two leaders met in Washington.
Abu Ahmed told CNSNews.com that the Sharon government is now acting under intense pressure from the pope and Bush to bring a halt to the building of the mosque, even though Israeli Arabs support it.
Critics say that local opponents to the construction are too afraid to speak out against it. Local police, the deputy mayor said, have been instructed not to interfere at the site or there could be trouble.
“We cannot agree [to a compromise],” he said. “If the pope and Mr. Bush and Sharon prevent [the building of the mosque] there will be a problem in Nazareth. There will be tension in Nazareth.”
Some local Christian leaders have protested against the building of the mosque and the International Coalition for Nazareth (ICN), a group of Catholics and Protestants — including clergy and archeologists — are working to rally support to oppose the construction of the mosque worldwide.
David Parsons, spokesman for the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem, which has been actively involved in the campaign to stop the construction, said the demands of the Islamic Movement are “unreasonable.”
“Nazareth has been trying for years to solve the congestion problem,” Parsons said.
The streets converge on one corner and the lot had been cleared and set aside to allow people to get in and out of the basilica, he said. But the “radical Muslims who have been agitating at a number of sites” tried to do the same here.
“It is a deliberate campaign to demean the basilica [and] lay down a gauntlet for Christians [visiting the site],” he said.
The ICN will submit recommendations to the government committee in mid-January, calling on the government to rescind permission for construction and implement the original plan to build a piazza there.
A demonstration in favor of the mosque construction is scheduled for Jan. 18 and some 10,000 people expected to pray in Nazareth on Friday, Jan. 17, the Muslim holy day, Abu Ahmed said.
Stahl is the Jerusalem bureau chief with www.CNSNews.com. Used by permission.