The Roman Catholic Church has praised the Israeli government's decision on Sunday to permanently halt the construction of a mosque in Nazareth close to a major Christian site.

The mosque was being built close to the Basilica of the Annunciation, in Nazareth, the site where tradition holds that the Angel Gabriel told the Virgin Mary she would give birth to Jesus.

Previous Israeli governments supported the building of the mosque, but some Christian groups found its proximity to the basilica provocative.

Muslims rioted during Easter 1999 when they feared the project to build the mosque might be blocked. The unveiling of the mosque's cornerstone later that year led to protests from the Vatican.

Building work on the mosque began at the end of last year in defiance of a court ruling. The Israeli government halted construction in January and set up a committee to make final recommendations. On Sunday the Israeli cabinet ruled that the building of the mosque should be halted.

Father Pierbattista Pizzabolla, a Jerusalem-based Franciscan priest, who is acting as the local spokesman for the Roman Catholic Church on the issue, said it was "a very wise and bold decision, and we give our blessing".

However, Muslim leaders in Nazareth, including the town's deputy mayor, Salman Abu Ahmed, reacted angrily.

"We defeated the Crusaders 800 years ago and we will defeat the enemies of Islam today," he said. The mosque was 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.

Abu Ahmed is convinced that the decision was made following pressure from both Pope John Paul II and U.S. President George W. Bush, who had raised the issue in talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Natan Sharansky, the Israeli housing and construction minister who headed the government committee, defended its ruling.

He said that Muslim activists had occupied the area by force and issued threats through loudspeakers against their Christian opponents.

Allowing the mosque to be built in that area would be seen as yielding to violence, he said.

"We have an obligation to safeguard the holy places and protect the rights of minorities and their freedom of religion," he said.

However, the committee said it would propose seven alternative sites for a mosque for the Muslim community in Nazareth.

But it was far from certain whether this gesture would satisfy Muslims in Israel, especially amid the current hostility and widespread violence between Israelis and Palestinians.

The Vatican called for harmony to be restored in the city. "We hope that the traditionally harmonious co-habitation of Christians and Muslims in Nazareth which had been threatened by a provocative initiative can be restored with the aid of leaders of the two sides and of the whole population," said Vatican spokesperson Joaquin Navarro-Valls.

The only way that the Israeli government decision can be overturned is through an appeal to the Supreme Court.

Related Elsewhere

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

Previous Christianity Today coverage of the dispute includes:

Government Rethinks Nazareth Mosque | A special committee debates whether the new structure would overwhelm the adjacent church site. (Feb. 28, 2002)
Israeli Decision to Halt Work on Nazareth Mosque Faces Challenge | Government officials reportedly favor plan for a larger mosque at an alternative site. (Jan. 14, 2002)
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.