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Israel’s decision yesterday to halt construction of a large mosque in Nazareth that has been under construction right next to one of the most revered of all Christian shrines is good news to the relatively few remaining Christian residents of the Holy Land, who see themselves increasingly squeezed by the escalating Arab-Israeli conflict.

An Islamic coalition had planned to construct a mosque in the plaza designated for the use of the Basilica of the Annunciation. The basilica, first built in the fourth century by Helena, the Emperor Constantine’s mother, stands on the site where Christians believe the Archangel Gabriel appeared to the Virgin Mary with the news that she would give birth to the Son of God.

Until yesterday’s decision, the Israeli government was widely regarded as having ignored protests from the Christian residents of Nazareth and supported the Muslim plan to erect a mosque – despite the 11 other mosques in Nazareth, a town of 70,000 Muslim and Christian Arab residents.

Though the government had issued no building permits, the mosque’s foundation has already been completed and concrete pillars have been erected.

Local Muslim leader Salman Abu Ahmed called the decision to halt the mosque’s construction a “declaration of war” on Israel’s large Muslim minority, according to an Associated Press report. “It is an irresponsible decision. If (the government) insists on its position we will not hesitate to continue building.”

The Vatican and various Western Christian groups had asked the Israeli government to reexamine the plans for the mosque. In November, the Vatican had said construction of the mosque would “put this holy place in a permanent state of siege,” and Pope John Paul II reportedly threatened to cancel a planned visit to the Holy Land over the issue.

The Christians’ plight has deteriorated so gravely in the last three years that Pope John Paul II held a meeting in Rome in mid-December on “The Future of Christians in the Holy Land.” The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Michel Sabbah, will hold a conference in Jerusalem on Jan. 21, also addressing the future of Christians in the Holy Land. Sabbah was born in Nazareth.

Dire plight of Christians

Documented reports of Muslim attacks on pilgrims and Christian residents have aggravated an already edgy tourist economy. The Israeli consulate in New York confirmed for WorldNetDaily that hotels in Nazareth have closed due to fears of violence, among them the new Marriot and Renaissance built to house an anticipated surge of visitors for the Jubilee year, 2000. Many Christian families of Nazareth depend on the pilgrim trade for their livelihood.

Conditions in Nazareth are just one example, say Christian organizations, of the dire plight of Christians throughout the Holy Land. Robert Younes, secretary of the Holy Land Ecumenical Foundation, told WND that it is urgent that Americans assist in efforts to ensure a Christian presence in the land of Jesus’ birth, death and resurrection.

“Jerusalem is the mother Church, it is where Christianity was born. It is unthinkable that there could be a Jerusalem without a Christian presence,” he said.

The Foundation has secured support for its programs in numerous American communities, from First Presbyterian Church of Houston to St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C.

“We have been warmly received by Cardinal Maida of Detroit (30,000 Arab Christians live in the Detroit area) who committed to pay tuition for 350 Christian children in the schools of the Latin Patriarch in Jerusalem,” Younes reports. The Archdiocese of Atlanta and Atlanta’s Peachtree Presbyterian Church will foster another 200 students. “Our goal is to make it possible for Christian families to remain in the Holy Land when conditions are so dire that emigration is a temptation,” said Younes.

Christians are located in smaller villages and towns where the population is a mixed community of Muslims and Christians such as Bethlehem, Beit Jala and Ramallah as well as in Jerusalem. Most Christians in Israel (including the Palestinian territories) are Arab Christians of various traditions: primarily Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran and Anglican. Vatican statistics from the year 2000 list 117,000 Catholics in Israel and the Palestinian territories who, with other Christians, constitute just 3 percent of the total population of the Holy Land.

The Holy Land Ecumenical Foundation believes that Muslim-Christian relations are cordial for the most part. Younes contends that the Nazareth situation was caused by members of the Israeli Likud party who came to Nazareth to seek votes from Arab citizens in the national elections. Their vote-buying strategy was to promise a mosque in the plaza, a prominent location. The purpose, theorizes Younes, might have been to buy votes and to set Christians and Muslims against each other so that they will not band together to oppose the new Jewish settlements being built all around the old city of Nazareth. “Soon Nazareth will be enclosed” by Jewish settlements, said Younes.

Other Christians working to support Holy Land Christian families also blamed Israeli intrigue for the mosque dispute. A Lebanese Christian who fled Beirut in the 1980s says he is “no partisan of Muslims,” who persecuted his family. “What began as vote buying by one party has been continued by another. The Jewish government wanted the mosque as a public relations coup. There are so few Christians in Israel that it costs the Jews nothing to be seen as granting a favor to Muslims as the expense of a handful of Christians.”

But after yesterday’s decision, lawyer and author Rafael Israeli, who has written on the mosque dispute, noted that Sharon, already unpopular with Arabs, had little to lose. “Sharon knows he will not get the Arab vote anyway,” he said, according to the Associated Press.

“It is easy to understand how such a small number of Christians are trapped between the hostilities of the Palestinians and the Jews,” a spokesman for the Holy See Mission to the United Nations in New York told WND. “Christians are being crowded out” by growing Jewish and Muslim settlements, an economic crisis and violence. The Vatican has signed agreements with both the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority to ensure the juridical rights of Catholics. Rights that are of paramount concern are rights of access to holy sites and the freedom to worship without threat.

The recent intifada resulted in Israeli military measures that have blocked access to most of the holy sites for Christian and Muslim residents, though some tourists are still admitted. Such prohibitions by the Israeli government have renewed calls for designating Jerusalem an international city under the jurisdiction of an international governing body that would guarantee access to the holy sites for people of all faiths.

That plan is rejected by most Jews, says Rabbi Gerald Meister of Brooklyn’s Ocean Parkway Jewish Center. Rabbi Meister serves as a consultant on Christian-Israeli affairs for the Israeli Consulate in New York. “The call for the internationalization of Jerusalem is the Vatican’s plan.” Meister bristles that Michel Sabbah and those who call for the internationalization of Jerusalem are “no friend of Israel. Jerusalem has always been the historical capital of Israel, why should we allow it to be under international control?”

Of course, Jerusalem was not the capital of Israel for more than 1800 years, from 70 A.D. until 1948 when the Jewish state was reestablished with Tel Aviv as its capital. Conceding the historical point, Meister countered, “Yes, but Jerusalem is the theological capital of the Jewish nation. And most Christians would agree with that.”

Brother David Carroll of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association based in New York, whose organization will participate in the “Future of Christians in the Holy Land” conference on the 21st made a rueful point concerning the history of the Near East and the Holy Land. “ Jerusalem is a sacred city for all three faiths, but it is Christians who have lived there longest and continuously. The ancient sees of Jerusalem, Antioch, Damascus – when the Jews were driven out by the Romans in 70 A.D., Christians returned.”

“There are Christian families in the Holy Land that can trace their lineage back 1800 years – to the Syro-Phonecian woman of the Gospels. They were here when Muslim armies conquered the land and when the Crusaders came. The Islamic Palestinians have no greater claim than Christians, for until the 1800s they were Bedouin tribes whose nomadic lives crossed over borders and did not settle nor build a definitive culture like the Egyptians or the Syrians. How tragic if Christians were are not enabled to remain in the land of Christ.”

Related column:

Bad times in Nazareth

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