Christian or Muslim Holy Land?

Nazareth's Christian mayor was attacked Oct. 17. His political party

If one thing characterizes the past two millennia in this corner of the world, it is the battle for sacred space.

Although for much of the past century the struggle for holy real estate has been between Muslims and Jews, it's currently between Muslims and Christians - in Nazareth.

For Christians, this is the place where the angel Gabriel told Mary she would give birth to Jesus. For Muslims, it is the burial place of Shihab al-Din, nephew of Salah al-Din, a celebrated warrior who recaptured the Holy Land from the Crusaders for the Islamic world.

As a result, the Basilica of the Annunciation and the Tomb of Shihab al-Din are in nearly the same place. What to do with the half-acre plot of land that borders both of them is now at the center of dispute, unleashing tensions unlike anything seen in this famed village in Galilee in ages.

The courtyard, wedged amid a mess of urban sprawl, is hardly what tourists expect to find when they file off buses each day to visit the boyhood home of Jesus. A coalition of major churches here had hoped to use this space to receive an expected 2.5 to 3 million visitors for millennium celebrations, including Pope John Paul II.

Muslims, however, say Shihab al-Din's tomb makes the courtyard Islamic property and want to use the space to build a new mosque to accommodate the city's growing numbers of devout.

Enter the Israeli government, which has just produced a compromise plan that would permit the construction of a mosque on the site, heeding promises to the Muslim community made by the previous Likud-led government, which was ousted in May. The decision has upset local Christians and led the Vatican to warn that the pope might not come to visit next March as planned - in what is to be the first-ever papal visit to the state of Israel.

At root, many here say, is not just another holy war over a piece of sacred real estate, but a more mundane game of politics under the banner of religion. In municipal elections here last November, a Christian maintained his seat as mayor of Nazareth, but the increasingly popular Islamic Movement won a majority on the city council for the first time. With the mayor lacking a coalition to support his policies, the city has been stuck in a state of near paralysis.

On Oct. 17, Mayor Ramez Jaraisi was attacked and lightly injured by unknown assailants. The mayor's secular political party blames Islamic militants.

It was not the first time the standoff has been punctuated by violence. This past Easter, Muslims and Christians clashed for several days, leaving behind scores of injuries and damage. Muslims blamed Christians, while Christians blamed both Muslims and the Israeli police for not getting involved sooner and putting an end to the hostilities.

As Christians see it, the government of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu viewed this state of affairs and, looking toward election day, sided with the Muslims - who make up 70 percent of Nazareth - in the hope of winning favor with Israel's 1 million Arab citizens. In addition, Israel's Christian Arab minority views the growth of political Islam inside Israel, especially its more militant wing, as a worrisome sign of things to come.

"I don't want this mosque; nobody wants this mosque," says Nariman Awad, a local resident wearing a large gold cross, as she checks around for eavesdroppers in the town center. "But if the Muslims are not allowed to build it, they'll say that we prevented it, and that will cause more problems for us."

In a place where memory runs deep, Muslims have often built new mosques adjacent to existing churches, or converted defunct ones. Local Christians say the same mentality prevails here.

"It's the thinking of the Middle Ages: If you have a church there, then we have to build a mosque right on top of it," says Kameel Khoury, who owns a souvenir shop with crches and crucifixes.

Islamists say there is no reason the two should not coexist peacefully. "Everywhere in the Middle East, we find churches and mosques kissing each other," says Abdul Malik Dahamshe, the head of Islamic Movement in the Knesset, Israel's parliament. "Those who think there shouldn't be a new mosque in Nazareth are going against the idea of Muslims and Christians living together."

When the dispute first developed over a year ago, Muslims erected a protest tent on the site where they want to build the mosque, including loudspeakers that Christians say overpower a pensive atmosphere. Construction of a mosque while millennial pilgrims file into town, church leaders complain, can only raise the level of disorder and din.

But many Muslims here say there is actually very little to negotiate. They say that the confusion arose when an Israeli court ruled that the land here was classified as state land. However, Muslims say this land is under control of the Waqf - or Islamic trust - and that means that no Israeli court has the right to rule on it.

"An Israeli court has no authority to make a decision about Islamic property," says Suleiman Abu Ahmed, who is the head of the Islamic Movement in Nazareth. "And all Palestinian land is Waqf land, so only a mosque belongs on Waqf land."

Meanwhile, the prayer-cum-protest tent remains. And the Holy Land's highest ranking Roman Catholic official, Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah, said in a letter to the Israeli president that building the mosque was an act of discrimination against Christians and would "prove to be a grave historical mistake."

The Israeli government says the black tent has to be removed before the cornerstone of the mosque can be laid, but Muslims say it will remain. They also have rejected the government's proposal to post a police station in the courtyard, as well as the suggestion that that they wait until after the millennium passes before construction begins.

"There is no reason to say we must wait a year to build the mosque," says Mr. Abu Ahmed. "We are a nation here. We are a majority, we have a majority on the city council, and this is democracy."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.