Israel Report

March 2002         

Religious Freedom in Nazareth

March 5, 2002
During these difficult times, the decision of a ministerial committee headed by Construction and Housing Minister Natan Sharansky to block the building of a large mosque in the main square of Nazareth may seem to be of peripheral interest. The decision, however, may eventually be seen to be a landmark victory against extremism and for religious freedom, and be taken as a model for how to respond to other instances of crass bullying.

The trouble began in 1997, when a structure that was originally a Turkish military barracks was destroyed to make room for a plaza near the Basilica of the Annunciation - the largest church in the Middle East. The plaza was to help accommodate the influx of pilgrims who were expected in honor of the new millennium. In December 1997, a small group of Islamic Movement activists occupied the site, claiming that it belonged to the Wakf, the Muslim religious trust, and announced plans to build a mosque there.

The claim that the area belonged to the Wakf was found to be baseless by the Nazareth Magistrate's Court and then by the Nazareth District Court. Both courts ruled that the land is government owned - first by the Turkish authorities, then by the British Mandate, and finally by Israel. But the final word came in October 1999, after two government committees had agreed to "compromises" that would allow the building of a mosque on the site.

The first committee, chaired by then tourism minister Moshe Katsav under the Netanyahu government, decided to permit the construction of a mosque on 500 square meters of the site. This decision, it seems, was taken mainly with an eye to the imminent elections and desire for quiet. The Islamic Movement rejected this "compromise," so the Barak government set up another committee chaired by then internal security minister Shlomo Ben-Ami. Ben-Ami, thinking this time of the need for quiet as the pope's millennial visit approached, decided to up the offer to 750 square meters, and this time the offer was ostensibly accepted.

It is clear that these previous two decisions were not made on the basis of a serious look at the merits of the case, but were driven by narrow considerations of expediency. The bottom line was that the Islamic Movement had a greater ability to stir up trouble with Nazareth than did the Christian minority. At the time, the only academic member of the Katsav committee, Hebrew University Prof. Raphael Israeli, dissented from the decision on the grounds that it was neither just nor effective. Israeli argued that rewarding an Islamic land grab would not satisfy the extremists, but would only result in further illegal encroachments and more conflict.

This is in fact what happened. Though the Ben-Ami committee ruled that the status quo had to be restored before any mosque was built, and that construction plans must be approved through normal channels, the Islamic Movement ignored all this and started building the mosque the minute the government decision passed. It is a virtual certainty that this pattern would have continued, with the new mosque far outstripping its planned size.

The Sharansky committee has rightly decided to put a stop to this blatant attempt by Islamic extremists to illegally elbow their way into a Christian holy site (the government is offering seven alternative sites for a mosque, some just 250 meters away). The Nazareth mosque episode is a microcosm of what went wrong with the Oslo process, and what is going on now on the Temple Mount.

It is possible to discern many failings of the Oslo process, but one to which even its architects now agree is that it was a mistake to systematically dismiss Palestinian violations of the agreement. In this case, the Sharansky committee cited the wholesale violation of previous agreements as a primary reason for the reversal of previous decisions to allow the building of a mosque.

At each staged of the game, governments must choose between appeasing extremists and standing up for justice, the rule of law, and religious freedom. The dean of Western experts on the Islamic world, Princeton's Bernard Lewis, once wrote that, according to Islam, "The true faith, based on God's final revelation, must be protected from insult and abuse; other faiths, being either false or incomplete, have no right to any such protection."

Those who decided that a gigantic mosque must be built next to Nazareth's main church, or that the entire Temple Mount must be transformed into an enormous mosque, do not believe in religious freedom but in religious conquest. It is Israel's duty to protect the rights of Judaism and Christianity against such religious aggression, and to defend the hope that all religions can coexist here in peace.

©2002 - Jerusalem Post

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