Whose Jerusalem ?

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Nazareth and the Temple Mount

January, 13 2002

After mounting protests from Christian groups in Israel and abroad, the cabinet last Wednesday courageously decided to halt construction of a controversial mosque in Nazareth adjoining the Basilica of the Annunciation. Though the issue is highly charged and delicate, and has stirred up passions among both Muslims and Christians, the cabinet is to be commended for not giving in to intimidation by the Muslim Wakf in formulating its decision. Hopefully, the government's decision on this issue will serve as a harbinger of a newfound determination to stop the Wakf from acting with impunity at other sensitive religious sites, in particular the Temple Mount.

The Nazareth controversy began in 1998, when Muslim activists invaded a plot of land next to the basilica, reportedly the largest church in the Middle East, claiming it belongs to the Wakf and had once been the site of a mosque. Christian leaders had been planning to use the land to build a plaza that would serve the thousands of Christian pilgrims who visit the town annually. The dispute went all the way to the High Court of Justice, which ruled in October 1999 that the Nazareth Municipality should go ahead with plans to build the plaza, though it also said that a small section of the lot contained the tomb of a Muslim sage and indeed belonged to the Wakf.

But even prior to the court's ruling, the Barak government had agreed that a mosque could be built on one-third of the land, a decision which angered Christians around the world. The Vatican condemned the move, and some Catholic leaders threatened that the pope might cancel his millennium visit to Israel as a result. That, of course, did not happen, but Christian leaders then intensified their protest against the mosque's construction. US President George W. Bush even raised the issue in talks with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in Washington. After the Wakf proceeded with construction work at the site, despite the fact that it did not have the requisite authorization by local, district, and national zoning committees, the cabinet decided to act, freezing construction and charging Interior Minister Eli Yishai and Construction and Housing Minister Natan Sharanksy with finding an alternative location for the mosque within two weeks.

Predictably, the government's decision provoked a torrent of anger among Muslim activists involved in building the mosque, some of whom did not hesitate to suggest there might be a violent response. Nazareth Deputy Mayor Salman Abu Ahmed said rather ominously that the cabinet decision was "miserable persecution of Muslims and the government and church leaders will pay the consequences for what could happen. We know how to struggle." For an elected official to speak in such demagogic terms is simply unacceptable and dangerous. It only serves to add further fuel to the fire, creating additional tensions which do not serve the interests of either Muslims or Christians in the area. Moreover, since the High Court and the government have both come out in favor of the Christians on this issue, it is time for the Muslim activists in Nazareth to accept the verdict of democracy and respect its institutions. Refusing to abide by the rule of law will, in the end, only backfire on them and undermine their cause.

In sad contrast to the Nazareth case, the government has yet to demonstrate a similar level of resoluteness when it comes to halting the illegal activity of the Wakf on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Living in a profound state of denial, both the Jerusalem police and various government ministers have largely stood by passively as the Wakf destroys priceless historical and archeological treasures on the Mount. The Antiquities Authority has been barred from overseeing the work, which is being carried out in flagrant violation of the law. The conspiracy of silence among police and government officials regarding the systematic destruction of the Jewish people's holiest site is an affront not only to Israel's sovereignty, but to its religious and cultural heritage as well. In its decision regarding the mosque in Nazareth, the government demonstrated commendable sensitivity to Christian religious concerns. The time has now come for a similar level of care to be shown for Jews as well. The time has come to stop the Wakf's devastation of the Temple Mount.

©2001 - Jerusalem Post

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