• ISRAEL \ Jan 23, 2002
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    Christian leaders 'afraid' to speak out about mosque
Christian leaders 'afraid' to speak out about mosque JERUSALEM (January 21) - Christians opposed to the building of the controversial mosque being built near the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth charged this weekend that Christian leaders are being intimidated and cannot speak out over the issue.

"There are no direct threats, but Christian leaders, who are more concerned about their communities than about their own safety, are frightened," Fr. Pierrebatista Pizzabala of the Franciscan Order said yesterday.

For the third Sunday in a row, a coalition of Christians, ranging from Evangelical Christian Zionists to mainline Protestants to Roman Catholics, demonstrated outside the Prime Minister's Office in protest against the planned mosque. This week an interministerial committee is due to visit the site of the mosque, which Muslim activists have begun building in an area the municipality had set aside as a plaza for pilgrims.

The Muslims had received permission from former internal security minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, acting on behalf of the previous government, to build the mosque, albeit a smaller one than they had requested.

They began construction last month before receiving all the necessary permits, and the government ordered the work stopped. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon appointed Housing Minister Natan Sharansky to head a committee to investigate the issue. The committee is due to present its recommendations next week.

Opponents of the mosque, who include the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land and the International Coalition for Nazareth, said they are asking the government to stop the intimidation of Christians and Muslims in Nazareth by "extremist elements." They said local residents told them that every night cars drive through the city with loudspeakers blaring anti-Christian and anti-Israel propaganda.

Rev. Charles Kopp of the United Christian Council in Israel said those who had visited the area could testify the atmosphere is very hostile and intimidating.

"It is bad for pilgrims and bad for business," Kopp said.

Kopp said that in private conversations both Christians and moderate Muslims from Nazareth had said they would rather not have the mosque, but even local Christian leaders are afraid to say so in public.

A spokesman for Sharansky said yesterday that aside from the visit to the site, it is unlikely the committee will hold any formal meetings. Representatives from both sides in the dispute are likely to meet with Sharansky privately.