• ISRAEL \ Feb 18, 2002
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    Sharansky: Threats won't sway mosque committee
Sharansky: Threats won't sway mosque committee Housing and Construction Minister Natan Sharansky, who heads the ministerial committee on the construction of a controversial mosque near the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, has warned the quarreling sides not to threaten the panel.

Sharansky told Ha'aretz that attempts to "influence the committee's work at the last minute can only hurt" those attempting to do so. "I advise everyone to make do with their appearance before the committee - and we allowed everyone who wanted to, to come before us - and not to get involved in threats, because it will not influence us," the minister said.

Representatives from both sides involved in the dispute over the building of the Shihab a-Din Mosque opposite the Basilica - the Catholic Church and the Waqf (Islamic religious trust) - have recently warned of the negative implications of the committee's recommendations. The Vatican's representatives warned last week that should the panel give the go-ahead to the mosque, it would prejudice the relations of the entire Jewish people with the Christian world.

The Islamic representatives have threatened that a decision to halt the construction will prompt severe protests, adding that they will continue with the construction, no matter what the panel rules.

Sharansky said that he would convene the committee for another one or two meetings at the most, possibly this week, to decide on its recommendations to the prime minister. It would then spend another week preparing its report.

Sharansky said that the panel members would make their decision according to "the law, the state's interests and the desire to protect the holy places and the rights of religious and national minorities." He said that he and the rest of the panel are well aware that they will be harshly criticized by one of the sides, if not both, whatever their decision.

The minister was critical of the two previous committees that looked into the matter: the first, chaired by Moshe Katsav, was appointed by then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu; and the second, headed by Shlomo Ben-Ami, was set up by then-prime minister Ehud Barak.

Sharansky, who was a member of the second panel, told Ha'aretz that although the panel made "a real, serious effort and tried to prevent a crisis and an explosion," two problems hampered the panel's discussions. First, the Catholic Church's position was not considered and secondly, the panel "did not insist that both sides take responsibility, and when you don't insist, you play into the hands of extremists."