(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 Holy Land.

"I believe that the political authorities in this case have a great responsibility, because, instead of favoring unity, they are creating the foundation to foment division," said Joaquin Navarro-Valls, the Vatican spokesman.

This statement in turn drew a sharp response from political and religious leaders in Jerusalem.

Israel's Foreign Minister, David Levy, described the Vatican's statement as "very grave". He said that Israel had, in fact, tried to achieve greater understanding between Muslims and Christians in Nazareth.

"Our efforts were aimed at defusing the dispute and reducing the tension between the faiths, particularly in Nazareth," he said.

"The act [of laying the cornerstone] was done by agreement, and, if it was done by agreement, all these unfounded statements are the opposite of the truth." This prompted at least one Italian newspaper to report that Israel had accused the Vatican of lying.

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One of Israel's two chief rabbis, Yisrael Meir Lau, also rejected the Vatican's statement. "It is against its [Israel's] interests to make any kind of hatred between Christians and Muslims," he told ENI. "I deny the suspicions that any official Israeli authority has any kind of interest to make so, because you know to make a hatred on a religious basis means to make a fire, and when a fire is [burning out of control], nobody is secure."

The new mosque, which will house the tomb of Shehab el-Din, a nephew of the Muslim hero, Saladin, who defeated the Christian Crusaders eight centuries ago, will be built on part of a plaza adjacent to the Christian basilica.

Arafat, who is concerned at the Vatican's stand, tried unsuccessfully to intervene at the last moment. He wanted to ease tensions and ensure that millennium celebrations in Palestinian-controlled Bethlehem were not undermined by the controversy.

One man who believes that the fight over the mosque is not yet over is the Latin Patriarch, Michel Sabbah, a Palestinian who grew up in Nazareth and is the most senior Roman Catholic official in the Holy Land. "I think we were obliged, compelled, to close our churches, to make our voices heard," he told ENI. "It is not a question of building a mosque. It is a question of provocation. It's a question of putting dissension between the [two] populations [of Nazareth]. And for this dissension, we say no."

But the leader of the Islamic Movement in Nazareth, Suleiman Abu Ahmed, told ENI that the protests against the mosque were not necessary because Christians in the town, like the Muslim residents, were all Arabs fighting for the same rights and freedoms.

"Christians in Nazareth do not need any help from any other forces in the world," he said. "We as Muslims respect all the Christians in Nazareth because the Christian people here are our brothers, are Palestinian people. We have the same future, we have the same history, no problems between Muslims and Christians totally." Ahmed said Patriarch Sabbah should realize that mosques, churches, and synagogues were all monuments to the same God.

"We are going to build a mosque to pray for the God of the Christians, to pray for the God of the Muslims, to pray for the God of the Jewish," he said.

But Israel's Internal Security Minister, Shlomo Ben-Ami, is not taking any chances. He has announced that a new police station will be built near the mosque to prevent possible outbreaks of violence. And, despite this week's unveiling of the cornerstone, Ben-Ami also plans to delay the start of construction of the mosque for two years. He believes this will help ease tensions during the next twelve months as Christians celebrate the two-thousandth anniversary of the birth of Jesus.

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In Rome the Italian press, which has given extensive coverage to the Nazareth dispute, has begun to raise doubts about the Pope's visit to the Holy Land. Until very recently it was believed that Pope John Paul would be in Nazareth next year on 25 March, the date on which the Catholics celebrate the feast of the Annunciation. But now several newspapers have asked if the Pope will still visit Nazareth or even Israel.

Other leading Catholic officials have also added their protests to that made by the Vatican's spokesman.

"The Israeli government must act for justice, and cancel its approval for the construction of the new mosque in Nazareth," said 77-year-old Ignazio Mancini, a Franciscan priest who held the religious title of Custodian of the Holy Land from 1980 to 1986. The post gives the holder a key influence within Christian circles in protecting and supporting Christian sites in the Holy Land. "The Israeli government could have and should have refused approval for the construction of the new mosque right next to the Basilica of the Annunciation," Mancini told ENI, pointing out that the municipal authorities in Nazareth had wanted to build a parking area on the site for the coaches that bring thousands of pilgrims to Nazareth.

He added that Nazareth already had 12 mosques, and that the Catholic Church was not opposed to the construction of another one. "We reject however the construction of a new mosque on this site, in a square which should be reserved for parking. We want and have always sought dialogue between Christians and Muslims. But laying the foundation stone of the new mosque close to a place so sacred for Christians was an unacceptable act of provocation."

David Luzzatto, head of the Italian Union of Jewish communities, told Rome's L'Unita newspaper: "I had the impression that with the diplomatic recognition between Israel and the Holy See [in 1993] there would have been more appropriate channels than general political declarations to resolve possible conflicts."

Copyright © 1999 Ecumenical News International

Related Elsewhere

See our earlier coverage of the mosque dispute, "Christians Protest Proposed Mosque | Nazareth Churches shut down for two days in show of disapproval," and "Preparing for Pilgrims | Religious rivalry complicates millennial planning."

See also Sunday's Associated Press stories "Israel Defends Against Vatican" and "Wrangle over Nazareth Mosque Heats Up"