The Galilee Gauntlet

"Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?" John 1:46

Little was expected of the humble Jewish village where Jesus grew up, especially among his countrymen in affluent trading centers like Capernaum. Today, however, Nazareth is a centerpiece — along with Bethlehem — for Christians honoring the birth of the Galilean sage 2000 years ago. That is, unless the Muslims have their way.

Nazareth, Israel's largest Arab town, is smoldering from a two-year old dispute between local Christians and Muslims over plans for a half-acre plot near the dominating Basilica of the Annunciation, the Middle East's largest church marking Gabriel's visitation with Mary. Inter-religious tensions erupted once again into violence, this time on Easter Sunday, leaving 31 injured from persistent rioting.
Nazareth's Basilica of the Annunciation.
The structure in the foreground is the protest tent erected by Muslim residents. The poster depicts the mosque they want to build on the disputed site.

The latest disturbances began when several thousand Muslim youths shouted insults at Christians leaving Easter services at the Basilica. In a repeat of attacks at Christmas, the Muslim gangs stoned worshippers, torched shops, and smashed windshields of cars with crosses dangling from their mirrors. Similar skirmishes occurred in the nearby Galilee village of Turan 2 years ago, after Muslims interrupted a mass on Orthodox Good Friday. Christians were left fearful by days of firebombs and a fatal stabbing.

The disputed vacant lot is state-owned and located on a strategic corner where several streets converge to funnel tourists up a single pathway to the Basilica. City officials planned an open plaza, until Muslim fundamentalists erected a protest tent last year, saying the site is near the grave of the obscure nephew of Saladin (who defeated Crusaders in the 12th century). They demanded the right to build a new, large mosque there instead. Construction work ceased.

Christians are losing a demographic struggle in Nazareth, where a population nearing 100,000 is now 60% Muslim. In November's elections, all eyes in the Arab sector were on Nazareth, as Islamists challenged the ruling secular Hadash party of mayor Ramzi Jeraiseh for blocking the mosque. Muslims won ten city council seats to Hadash's nine, but Jeraiseh narrowly returned as mayor. The council deadlocked over the issue and frictions ensued.

Israeli authorities are in the unenviable position of refereeing a Christian/Muslim quarrel that threatens to derail Millennial pilgrimage to Nazareth, including a planned visit by Pope John Paul II next March 25th. The Vatican reportedly has warned it will close all churches in Israel if a mosque is constructed. Even Yasser Arafat, who earlier this year tried to intervene in the dispute, told the Islamic radicals in Nazareth they had gone too far: "I will not let you lose Jerusalem for me. The situation between you and the Christians is rousing the Christian world – most notably the Vatican – against us."

Locals on both sides, defying facts and logic, blame Israel for the communal rupture; some Christians charge the government with favoring the Muslim majority at election time. Deputy Religious Affairs Minister Yigal Bibi responded: "At this point, anything we do will be interpreted as electioneering." The strife may have cost the director-general at Religious Affairs his job for suggesting that government colleagues not "cave in to the [Muslims'] blackmail." Israel's strategy is to seek a compromise over time. Some reports claim a deal was reached allowing a small mosque adjacent a public plaza. Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon plans to fly to Vatican City later this month to discuss the controversy. Nazareth's Islamic ringleader Salman Abu Ahmed also seeks a papal audience to explain his side.

THE CLASHES in Nazareth shatter all disclaimers by Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah and other Arab Christian leaders that all is well with their Muslim neighbors. These clashes are uneasily familiar to those who know the true face of Islam in the Holy Land. Fundamentalists have sought to mark Islamic territory in time for the Millennium. This has included encroachments on several Christian sites in recent years, with any responses met with defiance and force.

In April 1997, Muslims seized two rooms of a Greek Orthodox monk and annexed them to a mosque next to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The monk came back from abroad to find his access blocked and belongings thrown out. Adding to the insult, they built toilets on the top floor of the mosque, next to the Holy Sepulchre.

In another provocation, Muslim extremists occupied a site regarded as Simon the Tanner's house in Old Jaffa and have flaunted any efforts to resolve its legal status.

The situation in Nazareth fits the same pattern of Muslim encroachment in Bethlehem, now under Palestinian Authority rule, where an 80% Christian majority before 1948 has dropped to under 33%. New mosques have been built around Bethlehem's Manger Square, and Christian visitors complain about the imposing muezzin calls – not only five times a day for prayers, but also reportedly whenever Christian tour groups are around.

Islamic activists targeted Arab Nazareth as its next prize, and now demand the placement of a grand mosque along the very route to be taken by multitudes of Christians. The inescapable reality is that the flash point in Nazareth flared into violence when they became frustrated that the mosque might not be finished in time for the mass of Millennium travellers… including the pope. (A pontiff, I might add, who has graciously courted the Islamic world, visited mosques and just hosted Iranian leaders.) It seems some Muslims fancy that broadcasts of "Allah Akbar" just might seduce pilgrims on the Millennium's path. At the least, every visitor will be reminded Nazareth is Muslim now. For Christians, can any good thing come out of that?


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