Muslim groups have warned they will challenge the Israeli government's decision to halt construction of a mosque next to a major Christian holy site in Nazareth.

The Israeli security cabinet, apparently responding to pressure from the Vatican and other Christian bodies, announced January 9 that it was stopping the erection of a mosque near the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth.

The basilica is built on the site where tradition holds that the Angel Gabriel told the Virgin Mary she would give birth to Jesus.

Building work on the mosque began several weeks ago, in defiance of a court ruling. Previous Israeli governments had supported the project.

Some Christian groups had found the proximity of the proposed mosque to the basilica provocative. The mosque is intended to mark the resting place of Shehab el-Din, a nephew of Saladin, the 12th-century Muslim hero who defeated the Christian crusaders at Jerusalem.

Nazareth, today a predominantly Muslim town, is the place where the Bible recounts that Jesus spent his youth.

The deputy mayor of Nazareth, Salman Abu Ahmed, who is a prominent advocate of the project, accused the Israeli government of the "miserable persecution of Muslims."

"The government and the church leaders will pay the consequences for what could happen," he said. "We know how to struggle." He said the decision amounted to a "declaration of war" on Muslims in Israel.

Members of the Waqf, the Islamic Trust which is responsible for the mosque project, branded the decision a "persecution of Muslims and Arabs in Israel" and vowed to continue their "holy struggle."

Other Muslim leaders, however, voiced more moderate protests.

"We want to proceed legally," said Abulmalik Dehamshe, who represents the Islamic Movement as an Arab member of the Israeli parliament, the Knesset. "We've waited many years for this mosque and we are ready to wait many more, but we will never give up our right to build the mosque on this site."

A lawyer for the Waqf said that the first legal action might be to petition Israel's Supreme Court.

Muslims in Nazareth rioted during Easter 1999, when they feared the mosque project would be blocked. The unveiling later that year of the cornerstone for the project led to protests from the Vatican and to suggestions that the project might put at risk the millennium visit of Pope John Paul II to the Holy Land.

Abu Ahmed accused Christian leaders, including Pope John Paul and the senior Roman Catholic cleric in the Holy Land, Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah, of exerting pressure on the current Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, to halt the project.

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"We are very surprised that the Pope stood against our right to build the mosque," he said.

"There are no problems between Christians and Muslims in Nazareth. It's only Christian leaders like the Pope and Michel Sabbah who have a problem with the building of the mosque."

In a statement to the press, a spokesman for Sabbah welcomed the decision to stop construction. At the same time, he expressed concern that the announcement did not specifically mention moving the mosque to another area.

Anglican priest Ray Lockhart, vicar of Jerusalem's Christ Church and president of the United Christian Council in Israel, which groups Protestant churches, applauded the decision to halt the project.

But he stressed the need for vigilance to prevent construction near the basilica from being renewed and also expressed concern that more riots could break out in Nazareth.

Israeli government officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, conceded that the decision was aimed at placating the Vatican and other Christian organizations.

"Things came to a head last month, when [Israeli Foreign Minister] Shimon Peres was in the Vatican and the Pope did not agree to meet with him," one official said.

The diplomatic representative of the Holy See in Jerusalem, Pietro Sambi, said that the Vatican opposed construction of the mosque close to the Basilica of the Annunciation, but had no objection to Muslims building a shrine for their religious needs on an alternative site.

The Israeli cabinet has entrusted the housing minister, Natan Sharansky, with finding a solution to the issue, and presenting his findings within two weeks.

Israeli government officials reportedly favor proposing that a larger mosque be built at an alternative site.

Related Elsewhere:

Additional articles about the decision include:

Cabinet halts Nazareth mosque constructionThe Jerusalem Post (Jan. 10, 2002)
Gov't freezes Nazareth mosqueHa'aretz (Jan. 10, 2002)
Mosque near Christian shrine is blocked by Israeli officialsThe New York Times (Jan. 10, 2002)
Israel halts mosque construction — BBC(Jan. 10, 2002)
Israel halts mosque's construction — Associated Press(Jan. 10, 2002)
Christians unite to oppose Nazareth mosqueThe Jerusalem Post (Dec. 22, 2001)

Pictures and more information on the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth are available online.

Previous Christianity Today coverage of the dispute includes:
Nazareth Mosque Dispute Darkens Papal Visit To Israel | Vatican claims Israel is playing Christians and Muslims against each other (Nov. 30, 1999)
Christians Protest Proposed Mosque | Nazareth Churches shut down for two days in show of disapproval (Nov. 15, 1999)
Preparing for Pilgrims | Religious rivalry complicates millennial planning. (June 14, 1999)
See World Report for more Christianity Today articles on Israel.