JERUSALEM, Israel (BP)–The cabinet of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has halted the construction of a mosque in Nazareth near the landmark Basilica of the Annunciation, where tradition holds that the Angel Gabriel announced to the Virgin Mary that she would bear Jesus.
The decision was prompted by “stiff pressure from the Vatican and a united front of Christian factions in the Holy Land,” The New York Times reported March 2.
The decision, recommended by a special Israeli commission, reverses previous approvals of the mosque under Israeli governments led by Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak.
“This decision shows tremendous wisdom and courage and should be applauded by Christians everywhere,” said David Parsons, a spokesman for the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, in a news release. “It has reinforced our long-held confidence in Israel as the proper guardian of holy sites in the land, and gives new impetus for Christians to stand in support of this embattled nation.”
According to a statement by the special Israeli commission, “Protection of the holy sites connotes not only physical security, but also being attuned to the sensitivities of all religious people worldwide.” The commission was led by Natan Sharansky, Israel’s minister of construction and housing.
Parsons noted that aggressive efforts by a group known as the Islamic Movement to build a mosque on the site fits within a disturbing pattern of Muslim encroachment on authentic Bible sites throughout the Land of Israel, particularly the destruction of Jewish antiquities on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The resolution of the Nazareth dispute presents an opportune time to forge a collective Christian/Jewish stand against these encroachments, Parsons added.
“Any Christian truly concerned about safeguarding our biblical heritage in Nazareth should be just as troubled by what has been happening on the Temple Mount,” Parsons said. “Not only were the First and Second Temples located there, but also more events recorded in the New Testament occurred on the Temple Mount than any other single place in the Land of Israel, making it a uniquely significant Bible site that must be preserved.”
Construction of the mosque, according to the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, began moving ahead “at break-neck speed by hostile Muslim elements” late last year — with the foundation already having been poured, despite lacking permits and a court injunction — along the primary access route to the Basilica of the Annunciation. Nazareth is a city of about 200,000, 70 percent of whom are Muslim.
Over the previous two months, the Sharansky commission had conducted a probe of the five-year-old dispute, which included Easter 1999 street clashes between Muslims and Christians. The commission made on-site visits and heard testimony from both Muslim and Christian representatives.
In its decision, the Israeli cabinet expressly withdrew approval for a modest mosque previously granted by the former governments of Netanyahu and Barak — which had been significantly expanded by the Islamic Movement — and restored older plans for a tourist plaza on the vacant parcel.
The government also will begin discussions with local Muslims about building a “large and dignified mosque” on one of seven alternative tracts currently available in Nazareth, most on state-owned lands and some located only 250 meters away.
The Muslim leadership also will be allowed to refurbish a monument on the square to the 12th-century Muslim cleric Shihab a-Din, a nephew of Saladin who was killed fighting Crusaders. But they must erect a barrier separating the monument from the tourist plaza and Basilica access route and remove their protest tent and anti-Christian banners that have been in place since they first occupied the spot by force in 1997.
Muslim authorities, meanwhile, reacted with anger to the Israeli cabinet decision. Local Islamic Movement leader Salman Abu Ahmed, who has exploited the dispute to become the deputy mayor of Nazareth, described it as a declaration of war and vowed to resist any attempts to remove them from the spot.
“We defeated the Crusaders 800 years ago and we will defeat the enemies of Islam today,” Abu Ahmed charged.
Abu Ahmed has largely blamed the decision on outside pressures brought by Pope John Paul II and U.S. President George W. Bush. “Tell the pope and Bush that the Muslims in Israel won’t forgive them,” Abu Ahmed said after the Israeli cabinet decision March 2.
The Muslim leader also condemned local Christian leaders for their role in opposing the mosque, singling out Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah, a pro-Palestinian cleric and native of Nazareth, for special criticism. The Catholic leaders in Israel are part of the congregation of the pope and inciters against Islam, Abu Ahmed said, calling them a foreign element among the Arabs.
Papal Nuncio Pietro Sambi responded that the local Christians arrived in the region at least 640 years before the Muslims. “If they want to speak of foreign bodies, they are more foreign,” Sambi stated.
Sharansky held a press briefing after the cabinet decision and explained that the commission had taken into account Muslim threats of violence if the decision went against them, but he said the entire government and security apparatus was prepared to enforce the ruling. He also insisted that the committee had not been influenced by any outside political pressure.
Sharansky, who sat on a prior government committee that had approved the mosque construction in Nazareth, explained what had swayed him to change his mind. He said the Muslim activists had never respected the decisions of the two prior government’s permitting a smaller mosque, but intended all along to erect a grand mosque to detract from the Basilica.
Sharansky noted that they had occupied the entire area and used loudspeakers to broadcast threats to their opponents, and had rushed ahead with construction before obtaining proper permits. Allowing even a smaller mosque to be constructed at this time, Sharansky said, would be rewarding violence.
He also noted that the prior government committees had never taken into account the views of the larger Christian world, but rather treated it as a local matter and based their decisions largely on electioneering concerns. He noted this was the first time that the entire Christian community had been united, with opponents to the mosque ranging from PLO supporters to those who support Israel.
In addition, the previous committees seemed to have ignored the applicability of Israeli laws regarding protection of holy sites in Land, Sharansky said. “We have an obligation to safeguard the holy places and protect the rights of minorities and their freedom of religion,” he stressed.
At a subsequent conference on anti-Israel media bias, Sharansky noted that he was proud everyone in Israel was free to express their opinions, but this dispute marked the first time he had encountered Israeli citizens who were afraid to speak their mind in public. He revealed that a number of Christians and Muslims from Nazareth came to his committee in secret to declare their opposition to the mosque, which helped convince him to side against those using intimidation to achieve their ends.