(Ecumenical News International)—Pope John Paul II's plans to visit the Holy Land next year have become caught up in controversy, following claims by the Vatican that Israel has been deliberately creating tensions between Christians and Muslims in Nazareth.

Pope John Paul is expected to arrive in Nazareth in March, but planning for the trip has become complicated because of the Vatican's dispute with Israel over an Israeli decision to allow a mosque to be built in Nazareth, the town where Jesus Christ spent his childhood.

All major churches in the Holy Land belonging to the Roman Catholic Church, and other Christian denominations, including the Greek Orthodox Church, closed for two days this week in protest at the Israeli decision.

Christians are angry that Israel allowed Muslims to unveil, on November 23, the cornerstone for the new mosque, which is to be built in the shadow of the Basilica of the Annunciation. The basilica is located on the site where, according to tradition, the Angel Gabriel told Mary she would give birth to Jesus.

Despite appeals from Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, and the Islamic High Council in Jerusalem who tried to reduce the tensions, about 6,000 Muslims gathered in Nazareth to celebrate the unveiling of a marble slab, the cornerstone for the new mosque. The Muslims set off firecrackers, offered prayers to Allah and chanted defiant slogans. At the same time Christian residents, who make up about 40 percent of the town's population, deserted the area as Israeli police watched over the proceedings.

The ceremony prompted a strongly-worded attack from the Vatican's spokesman, who praised efforts by some Islamic leaders to halt the project, and accused Israel of inciting Christian-Muslim tensions in the ...

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