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Politics, religion clash in Nazareth

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Nazareth, Israel

Shop owner Salam Habiby says Nazareth is a different place than it was before a bitter -- and still unresolved -- dispute erupted over building an Islamic mosque adjacent to the Basilica of the Annunciation.

“When I was growing up, no one in my generation thought in terms of Christians and Muslims,” Habiby explained. “But now my son senses there are two kinds of people, Christians and Muslims. He says to me: ‘So and so is a Muslim,’ as if it is us versus them.”

Habiby’s experience captures why a dispute here over real estate has made headlines around the world. Many religion experts believe one of the forces shaping the next millennium will be the relationship between the world’s two largest monotheistic creed¯, Christianity and Islam Ñ and Nazareth, the city where Jesus grew up, has become a laboratory in which the promise and peril of that relationship are being put to the test.

The argument over the mosque also illustrates the way that religious problems in the Middle East inevitably take on political and even commercial overtones, making them all the more complex.

The trouble began in 1997, when Nazareth’s municipal government demolished a school building that had been empty for three years in advance of work on a plaza in front of the basilica. The project was aimed at creating some open space for pilgrims and residents in what is now a congested, ugly area leading to the church.

Islamic activists expressed outrage that a minbar, or prayer niche, in the building, had been destroyed. The Islamic Movement, a political faction leading the charge for a mosque, set up a protest tent and asserted its right to “rebuild the mosque,” despite the fact that the minbar had not been in use for decades.

Violence erupted over Easter, when dozens of Christians were wounded and storefronts and windshields were smashed in by mosque supporters.

Plans call for the new mosque to be named after Shehab al-Din, an Islamic warrior against the crusaders and nephew of the legendary Muslim commander Salah al-Din (usually rendered in English as “Saladin”). Shehab al-Din died from wounds in the 1187 battle of Hittin, and his green-domed tomb abuts the proposed construction site.

Catholic leaders argued and continue to argue that the location was chosen as a provocation and that the mosque’s erection will inevitably result in friction.

The massive Basilica of the Annunciation, the largest church in Israel, marks the spot where, according to tradition, the Archangel Gabriel told Mary she would give birth to Jesus Christ. It contains what are said to be the ruins of the house in which Mary lived and an expansive and well-adorned upper-floor prayer area.

The Islamic Movement accepted a decision last October, touted as a compromise, in which the government allotted 450 square meters of state land for the mosque. This was to be added to 250 meters of land already encompassing Shehab al-Din’s tomb, thus enabling the construction of a mosque on 700 square meters.

This was smaller than the movement originally envisioned, but -- again to the municipality’s dismay -- 200 meters larger than what had been promised by the previous government. Remaining territory was to be allocated to the municipality for a much smaller square than it envisioned, separated from the mosque in a manner not specified.

Most Christians object to the very idea of a mosque in such close proximity to the basilica.

“That place is not a good place,” said Bishop Giacinto-Boulos Marcuzzo, vicar of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem and the senior Catholic official in Nazareth. “We are ready to help them build [a mosque] but why there? Only for provocation, for political reasons.”

The Vatican reacted angrily, with spokesman Joaquín Navarro-Valls condemning the compromise. “I believe that political authorities in this case have a great responsibility, because instead of favoring unity, they create the foundation to foment division,” he said.

Both sides agree that the jousting has kindled antagonisms between Islamic and Christian residents.

“The problem is not whether there will be a mosque, it is how the mosque became a separating factor here and how it became burning oil,” said Lutfi Mash’our, editor of the city’s As-Sennara newspaper.

A major reason for the success of the mosque supporters, and the source of deep Christian anxiety, is demographic.

Seventy percent of Nazareth’s 70,000 residents are Muslim and the remainder Christian, a reversal of the situation that prevailed when Israel was established in 1948. The change is due to an influx of Muslims from surrounding villages, a higher Muslim birth rate and immigration of Christians to Europe and the Americas.

With the leading protagonists in the mosque dispute, Mayor Ramez Jaraisy and Abu Ahmed, the deputy mayor, still at loggerheads, it is hard to see how the trend toward divisiveness can soon be reversed.

“The microbe of religious strife has entered the city,” said Jaraisy, a Christian who heads a list of the Democratic Front Party comprised of Muslims and Christians and who insists that the dispute is not a religious one. Rather, he believes, it stems from interference in the city by larger Israeli political forces and the use by Islamic parties, especially the Islamic Movement, of the mosque issue.

Israeli forces backed the Islamic Movement’s challenge in order to encourage infighting within the Arab minority, Jaraisy claims angrily. Nazareth was targeted because it is the largest Arab metropolis in Israel, and its leaders have been prominent in battles against discrimination and for Palestinian rights, he said.

“During the last two years, we were busy with our local problems. They neutralized the leadership of Nazareth,” Jaraisy said.

The charge is widely echoed by both Christian and Muslim residents.

“Israeli policy has been that what is bad for the Arabs is good for the state of Israel,” Mash’our said. “They are trying to Lebanonize the Arab sector, which is a tragedy for all of the citizens of Israel.” In Lebanon, political identities were fractured to such an extent that Muslims and Christians warred with one another, beginning in 1975.

Israeli Government Press Office Director Moshe Fogel rejected the charge.

“The irony of this situation is that even when there are disputes between Christians and Muslim Arabs, it is easier to turn against the Jews, the Israeli authorities, and blame them for the lack of tolerance between Christians and Muslims. We would do everyone a service by focusing on how to solve the problem, and not blaming third parties,” Fogel said.

There are indications, however, that Israeli Jewish groups are not entirely innocent. A Member of Knesset from the Likud party, Moshe Arens, said that according to his information, during the previous government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a Likud official backed the Islamic Movement.

A critical question in the maneuvering is what grouping will dominate Nazareth politics.

Abu Ahmed says with satisfaction that “the Shehab al-Din problem” has been good for the Islamic Movement, giving it 3 or 4 more seats on the council than it otherwise would have had, thus enabling it to have a 10-9 majority over Jaraisy’s grouping.

“Shehab al-Din became a symbol of Muslim identity,” explained storeowner Ali Kanj, who voted for the Islamic Movement.

During an interview in early May, Abu Ahmed condemned violence and said confrontations were not on a religious basis, but rather between Muslims and “communists.”

“All of us are Arabs, and there is no reason to be afraid one from the other. All are Palestinians, citizens of Nazareth. Muslims and Christians lived together for thousands of years, and churches beside mosques [have existed] since history and there is no reason to be afraid.”

But at the same time, Abu Ahmed subscribes to a view of Christian Arab history that most Christians would reject as false and divisive. Christians, he said, gained an upper hand over Muslims during the 19th century because they were favored by Europeans and allowed to study in European schools. Moreover, he said, Israeli forces refrained from expelling Christians along with Muslims during the 1948 War in which Israel emerged. “The Israeli army kept the Christians and did not expel them because they have a special relationship with the Christians,” said Abu Ahmed.

Abu Ahmed’s point is a sensitive one, because Christians here generally view themselves as devoted patriots to Arab causes and consider their Arabism to be no less than that of Muslims. Modern Arab nationalism was founded largely by Christian intellectuals, and some of the most hard-line figures in the PLO have been Christians.

Asked why the mosque needed to be built on a site so close to the church, Abu Ahmed said: “Why did the Christians build a church in this place? It is holy land for Christians and beside it is holy land for Muslims. It is very nice that there will be a mosque beside a church; this will be a symbol of brotherhood, humanity and common living.”

But a visit to the site points to the possibility of a different outcome. The call to prayer is made through loudspeakers at an earsplitting volume, something that succeeds in summoning Muslims but does not help to set a tranquil tone for visitors to the church.

Then there is the righteousness projected by the Shehab al-Din leaders at the site.

Featured prominently is a 6-feet-by-5-feet depiction of a massive gray mosque with four minarets and the caption: “Here will be built the Shehab al-Din Mosque.” The Basilica of the Annunciation is nowhere to be found in the picture, leaving the impression that it has either been blocked out by the mosque or wished away by the artist. Ahmad explained that the picture is of a mosque in Nigeria and not the mosque that the movement will build.

Nasser Mansour, a barber, offered perspective. “We did not start living here today,” he said. “We are talking about thousands of years. We and the Muslims have one culture. We live together in mixed neighborhoods. They visit us on our feast days and we visit them on theirs. My friends are Muslims. A few people on both sides may want strife, but this was a storm in a teacup. Maybe outsiders have an interest in dividing us, but our interest is to live together.”

It is too early to predict whether the city will pull together for a period of healing or fracture even more, according to a tourism worker, who is Christian. There are fanatics on both sides, he said. “Is building the mosque going to make things calm down or heat up? I don’t know. That’s what makes everyone worried,” he added.

National Catholic Reporter, May 26, 2000