While Israel is pulling out all the stops in preparation for an inundation of pilgrims to mark the beginning of the third millennium of Christianity, a dispute in one of the cities where it all started is giving tourism officials headaches.
The city of Nazareth, Jesus' boyhood home, is in the midst of a $100-million renovation that includes an archaeological re-creation of a first-century village and the construction of new hotels (CT, Feb. 8, 1999, p. 22).
But an area near the massive Church of the Annunciation, designated for construction of a tourist plaza, has been seized by local Muslims who claim it for a mosque. They want to commemorate the tomb of Shehab al-deen, who fought against Crusaders in the twelfth century. Tensions erupted into violent clashes last Christmas and again on Easter.
Islamic leaders have thus far refused to compromise and rebuffed an offer of another larger locale for a mosque, which was made by a committee that included deputy prime minister Moshe Katsav and foreign minister Ariel Sharon.
Nazareth's Christian mayor, Ramez Jaraisi, and the Israeli government officials are in a difficult position. Muslims, not Christians, are now the majority population in Nazareth. But the Vatican has threatened to close churches and possibly even reconsider a visit by Pope John Paul II if a mosque is built in the shadow of Nazareth's prime attraction.
With the largest flood of pilgrims in Holy Land history at stake, officials are working diligently for a solution. Katsav, who is also tourism minister, says "Israel has invested $500 million during the last few years in preparation for 2000." But government officials realize the investment could be for naught if Muslim extremists cause large numbers of Christian tourists ...1