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 ...

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