• FEATURES \ Jan 21, 2002
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    Between cross and crescent
Between cross and crescent (January 20) - The controversy over construction of a mosque next to Nazareth's Basilica of the Annunciation has become an international issue that is tearing apart this Muslim/Christian town. Leora Eren Frucht reports on a religious dispute that has become a political tinder-box

Like many residents of Nazareth, "Ibrahim" becomes uncomfortable when asked about the most explosive topic in town: Should a mosque be built near the largest church in the Middle East - the Basilica of the Annunciation?

He doesn't think so. "If this place is so holy to Muslims, why didn't the Turks ever build a mosque there?" asks the Muslim shopkeeper, who says he's more concerned about earning a living than building a showy mosque. He thinks many residents of Nazareth feel the same way.

But Ibrahim - not his real name - is afraid to say this publicly. He talks quietly and insists that his name not be used. His store windows were already smashed three years ago when riots broke out over the issue. "If I give you my name, I can expect more of the same," he says.

Many residents of Nazareth - Christian and Muslim alike - fear another eruption over the issue is imminent. Most refuse to even discuss the subject - some out of fear; others in the hope that by not talking about it, by not taking any public stand, they'll defuse it. At the very least, it won't blow up in their faces. They prefer to pass the ticking bomb on to the Israeli government and let it explode there - which, by all indications, is what seems destined to happen.

Next week, a government committee, headed by Housing and Construction Minister Natan Sharansky, is to announce its recommendation whether to permit construction of the mosque, known as Shehab-a-Din, named after the warrior whose tomb is nearby. Shehab-a-Din was the nephew of Saladin, the Islamic leader who defeated the Crusaders in the 12th century.

Islamic movement activists, backed by Israeli Arab leaders, have warned that a decision to halt construction of the mosque could lead to bloodshed. A decision to allow the mosque to be built may rupture Israel's relations with the Vatican and with other Christian leaders representing two billion Christians worldwide.

The disputed area - a 2,000 square meter lot belonging to the state - used to house a school, which was torn down several years ago.

Nazareth Mayor Ramez Jeraise, a Christian, proposed that the area be transformed into a Venetian-style plaza that would accommodate the many Christian pilgrims expected to visit the town and church during the millennium year.

But in December, 1997, Muslim activists occupied the site, insisting that the land belonged to the Wakf, the Muslim religious authority. The High Court of Justice dismissed this claim in 1999, ruling that except for the 135-square meter. area of the tomb, the rest of the 2000-sm. lot belonged to the Israel Lands Authority (ILA) and that there was no reason to prohibit the construction of the plaza. But the government did not wait for the court ruling, and in an effort to court the Arab vote, gave the green light to build a mosque on a 700-meter section of the site.

In three days of rioting that began on Easter of 1999, 28 people were injured and dozens of stores burned. Local Christian leaders protested the government decision - to no avail. When construction of the mosque began last month - despite the absence of a building permit - Christian leaders formed a blanket coalition opposing the move, and mobilized international support for their position. The Pope has expressed concern over the issue, and US President George W. Bush raised it with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. In response to growing international pressure, the cabinet decided last week to order a halt to the construction and appointed Sharansky to find a solution to the issue.

THE PROMINENT black-domed Basilica of the Annunciation can be seen from every approach to Jesus' home town. Christians believe that this is the site where the archangel Gabriel informed the virgin Mary that God had chosen her to bear his son. The event is depicted inside in a series of elaborate murals, each from a different country: there is a kimono-clad Mary, a turban-wearing one, and even a modern cubist rendition of the scene.

But on Monday morning this week, the gate of the largest church in the Middle East is padlocked. Closed for business. "Since the intifada, they don't bother opening it every day because there are no tourists," explains one resident.

The street alongside the church is lined with empty souvenir shops stocked with Christian memorabilia. There is an open-air market at the foot of the Basilica - and beyond it, the disputed lot. The cement foundations of the mosque have been laid - and piles of steel beams are strewn about on the ground. The work is frozen, pending the decision of the government - and that of the High Court. The Wakf plans to challenge the government in court if it reneges on its written agreement to build the mosque.

Five times a day, prayers are broadcast from the loudspeakers erected on the dome of Shehab-a-Din's tomb.

"There used to be one small loudspeaker that played prayers quietly. But in the last few years they added more loudspeakers and blast the prayers at full volume, drowning out everything else," says a Christian shopkeeper whose store is across from the spot. "You don't hear loudspeakers like that in Jordan or Syria," he says.

One Christian clergyman notes that instead of lasting a few minutes, the prayers often go on for a full hour. "It's provocation," he says.

There is a large protest tent on the site where Muslim men pray.

The entire lot is draped with rows of green Islamic flags fluttering in the wind. Dozens of men simply mull around, some sipping coffee, making sure the place is occupied. Many say they are not religious, but that the issue has become one of Arab pride.

Since the 1999 rioting in town, relations between the 50,000 Muslims and 25,000 Christians in Nazareth are tense. "There used to be no difference between Muslims and Christians here," says Isham Moutran, a 42-year-old Muslim resident. "But now, because of this, relations have soured. Christians will only buy from Christians, and Muslims will only buy from other Muslims," says Moutran, who runs a sweets shop and cafe a few hundred meters from the disputed site. "You really feel the difference over the last three years."

As a child, Moutran was educated at the church school, and still has close ties with many of its personnel. "They are afraid," he says. "I can see it in their eyes. They think they will be hurt again like they were in the last riots."

A plaque outside the church, which reads "Property of the Holy Land," has been spray-painted black. Beneath it, a Wakf official is approached by a journalist. His first question to the journalist: "Are you Christian?" Despite these signs of religious tension, Lufti Mashour insists that "there is no conflict between Christians and Muslims."

Mashour is the editor of the influential Arabic-language newspaper, A-SinaraAs-Senara, based in Nazareth, and his opinion pieces have repeatedly espoused that view, which seems in some respects like wishful thinking.

BUT IN one sense, Mashour is right.

The conflict does not fall strictly along Christian-Muslim lines. There are Christians - like him in fact - who support the construction of the mosque. And there are Muslims, like Ibrahim, who don't.

The city of Nazareth - Israel's largest Arab town - would like to downplay the religious overtones of the dispute. When asked about the number of Christians and Muslims in town, the mayor's spokesman Ramse Hakim refuses to answer. "We are all Arabs," he says.

Many, like the mayor himself, are caught in the middle - torn by loyalty to religion and national identity. The erection of the mosque has become an Arab national cause adopted by the Arab Monitoring Committee.

The Christian mayor, who originally fought for a plaza, grudgingly agreed to a mosque on part of the premises following the 1999 riots, and last month joined the Monitoring Committee in calling for the construction of the mosque. (He would not be interviewed about the issue.) The Islamic Movement spearheaded the drive for the mosque - and, in doing so, gained several seats in the 1998 municipal election.

Those in favor of the mosque say that because of Shehab-a-Din's tomb, the land is holy and rightfully belongs to Wakf.

Moutran, the Muslim cafe owner with many Christian friends, says that at first he felt "the Christians were right. It would not be nice to have a mosque there right in front of the church." But he says that when he "discovered" that the land belonged to the Muslims, he changed his mind.

"It belongs to us - we have the papers to show it."

When told that the High Court ruled that the area does not belong to the Wakf, Moutran responds: "Two governments gave their approval for construction of the mosque. If it wasn't legal how could they give their approval?" It's hard to argue with him.

"The Israeli government made a big mistake in agreeing to build the mosque, and now they're finally realizing that," says Hebrew University Prof. Raphael Israeli, who was one of the members of a 1998 government committee formed to study the issue. Israeli recommended against building the mosque, but his was a minority opinion on the committee.

Moutran, a good-natured man who wants to stay on good terms with everyone, is one of the many residents who have been swept up in the fervor of the mosque cause. He sympathizes with his Christian friends, but says "there must be a mosque here. We won't give up on it - ever.

"For years we lived in peace with the Christians. But this will ruin everything. It's like a sleeping giant has been awakened, and now there is no turning back."

An older man enters the cafe. He's one of the regular "guards" at the mosque site, and he begins railing against the efforts to halt construction. In his angry soliloquy, he juxtaposes appeals for coexistence with threats.

"We live with the Christians like brothers," he says, but peppers his remarks with derogatory comments about Christian religious leaders. "What's the problem - there are churches and mosques alongside each other in Jerusalem," he says, appealing to the ecumenical spirit, but quickly adds: " Do you want a slaughter here? There will be bloodshed. We will not give up."

The churches - virtually all of them - are spearheading the drive to stop construction of the mosque which they regard as a provocation and an attempt to detract from the Basilica's prominence. (The mosque is to be four stories high; an earlier version called for a seven-story structure.) In a massive and unusual display of unity, leaders of more than a dozen churches in Israel issued a plea last month to the prime ministerSharon to stop construction of the mosque.

THE ISSUE has formed cracks in some traditional Arab alliances.

For instance, Jerusalem's Latin Patriarch ateMichel Sabah, known for his vigorous support of Palestinian and Israeli Arab causes, finds himself at odds with the Arab Monitoring Committee.

"I'm astonished at the letter they wrote [supporting the construction of the mosque]," says Sabah's secretary and spokesman Father Raed Abu-Sahlia.

Meanwhile Sabah, who was one of more than a dozen Christian leaders to protest to Sharon, has become the butt of criticism in Nazareth. He was singled out in last Friday's sermon at the makeshift mosque, and many Nazareth residents speak of him with contempt. "Everyone is accusing our Patriarch of [mounting] this campaign," complains Abu-Sahlia, chancellor of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem.

Mashour, the A-SinaraAs-Senara editor, himself a Christian, is angry at Christian leaders for the letter they sent to Sharon, and calls it "unacceptable."

"I can't believe they acted outof their own free will," he says, repeating an accusation made by many.

Supporters of the mosque maintain that the only ones trying to sabotage the project are Christian leaders "taking orders from Christian bosses abroad" - a reference to, among others, the Pope.

But this is not quite so.

Virtually no one in Nazareth will dare voice public opposition to the mosque. But privately, some residents of Nazareth - Muslim and Christian alike - admit that they are less than enthusiastic about the project.

"It's just not appropriate in this place. It's simply bad for business," says "George," a Christian store-owner, who also insists that his real name not be used.

"This is the tourist center of town, and a plaza would have been a real boon for tourism. But with a mosque, the area will be closed off for prayers half the time." Ibrahim, the Muslim shop-owner, agrees.

"Because of what they've done over there, tourism on this street is dead," he scowls. "The few who come to Nazareth at all bypass this area." Moutran, a shop-owner himself, doesn't deny this.

"Sure, a plaza would be better for business. But this issue goes deeper than that," he says. "It's a matter of principle," and taps his fist on his chest for emphasis.

Both George and Ibrahim resent the way the mosque came into being. They speak contemptuously of the group of "Muslim hotheads" who first occupied the site, and the Israeli politicians who pandered to them - out of pure electoral considerations.

"A small group of people occupy a site, refuse to leave, and the government pats them on the back and says: 'that's fine, that's fine - just give me your votes," says George.

"There were only a dozen people there at the beginning ," says Ibrahim. "That was the time to get rid of them."

As for the claim that the land rightfully belongs to the Wakf, George scoffs: "They claim that all of Israel is Wakf land, so why not give it to them? If they have the right to be here, then they have the right to be in Tiberias and Migdal Ha'emek too."

Whatever accusations the parties make against each other, it is nothing compared to the seething contempt they hold for the Israeli government and its role in the affair.

Editor Mashour accuses the government of playing "a game of divide and conquer." "There is not a shred of doubt," he says, "that the government's intention was to sow divisions among Arabs."

That view is shared by virtually everyone interviewed - Muslim, Christian, pro-mosque, and anti-mosque.

For his part, Father Abu-Sahlia of the Latin Patriarchate is convinced that "the small group of Muslim fundamentalists who favor building the mosque are taking their orders directly from Israel's secret service, the Shin Betة They told them to build [the mosque] at night, and stop in the daytime, and they ordered the police in Nazareth not to interfere when riots began," he claims, adding, "we have the papers to prove this but cannot reveal them now."

Ibrahim, who opposes the construction of the mosque, finds it "absurd" that the government is so concerned about giving a small plot owned by the Israel Lands Authority to the Wakf.

"The government of Israel took my land," he says, referring to land confiscated by the state. "It took the land of all the Arabs. Now, suddenly, the state is concerned about this piece of land?"

When it is suggested to Ibrahim that any attempt to forcibly remove the Muslim occupants of the site would result in violence, he snaps: "Is that what the government is afraid of? They are concerned about human life? Then why did they kill 13 people?" he asks, referring to the Israeli Arab citizens - including several from Nazareth - shot by police during the violent demonstrations at the start of the intifada.

George is annoyed at the government's wavering. "One day it's yes, one day, it's no, one day they say 'build,' one day they say 'stop.' This uncertainty is unbearable and causing great damage. Just decide - one way or the other."

SO WHAT should the government do now?

Prof. Israeli, who objected to the erection of the mosque from the start, says it's not too late for the government to say no.

"You mustn't reward people for conquering an area that does not belong to them. It's a bad precedent," he says. "Whatever the cost in bloodshed now, it will be less than the cost of leaving it several more years."

He argues that it's important for Israel to strengthen its ties with the Christian world, including the Vatican, and not betray the Jewish state's fundamentalist Protestant allies. He also believes Israel should court the Arab Christian minority "who could become more like the Druse in their attitude towards the state," says Israeli, who is author of a soon-to-be-published book on the affair, entitled Green Crescent over Nazareth: the Displacement of Christians by Moslems in the Holy Land.

Abu-Sahlia of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, proposes what he calls several "win-win solutions." Turn the site into an inter-religious center for dialogue between Christians and Muslims; build a lavish mosque on any other site - and the Church will even contribute to it.

And refurbish the dilapidated tomb of Shehab-a-Din. What's more, he'd like the solution to be hammered out by religious representatives of both communities rather than imposed by the government.

"I don't want to poison relations more than they are poisoned already." He's concerned about what might happen if the Muslim activists are forced off the site.

"If there is violence, we expect there will be revenge against Christians like there was three years ago. We will tell our people not to be violent, but also not to allow themselves to be killed."

Early on in the conflict, Israeli proposed the site be turned into a kindergarten and park for all Nazareth residents. Mashour suggested it become an Arab cultural center. The Wakf officials rejected both ideas, and now, says Mashour "it's too late for such proposals. I wouldn't even bother raising the idea again. There is no other answer now but to respect the agreement between the government and the Wakf. The mosque must be built."

At last Friday's sermon, the imam urged supporters to reject any attempt to halt construction of the mosque, but to do so peacefully. The backers of the mosque now say they'll just occupy the site indefinitely - until they are allowed to build.

Most residents of Nazareth are simply fed up with the issue. The gaping hole where construction was halted is like an open wound, and what most residents say they want above all is to heal it.

Even Ibrahim and George, who are not enthusiastic about the mosque, are willing to tolerate it just to bring some peace.

"There isn't much choice in the matter now," says George. "If the government had acted at the beginning when a few activists occupied the site, things could have been different. But now, after four years, you have to give them something for their pride."

"I don't care what they do anymore," says Ibrahim. "Just decide. Don't leave the city in chaos."