VIEWPOINT

BLINDING EYES AT THE HOLY SEE

The recent scene in Nazareth was pregnant with extremes. Nuns in habits wept as they found the doors to the majestic Basilica of the Annunciation sealed shut. Some Christian sojourners were angry with local clergy for padlocking them out of the church built where Mary learned she would conceive the promised Jewish Messiah. Other pilgrims from far off lands stood in disbelief, unable to fully grasp the modern unfurling of ancient religious animosities.

One block away, a jubilant Muslim throng could be heard cheering "With our blood and souls, we will redeem you Shahib al-Din," while laying the cornerstone for a new mosque to honor an obscure 12th century anti-Crusader cleric. The thousands of radical Muslims, not so naïve as the nearby Christians, revelled beneath fireworks, Koranic banners, balloons and green Islamic flags, in symbolic triumph over a rival faith.

For two days in late November, it was as if in some minds the Crusades had never ended... and the Jews, once again, were caught in the middle.

On November 22 and 23, the majority of churches throughout the Holy Land were closed in a powerful protest against Israel's decision to allow Islamic elements to lay the foundation for a future mosque alongside a tourist plaza for Millennium pilgrims visiting the foremost Christian shrine in Nazareth. The local Latin, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Patriarchs timed the unprecedented closure to coincide with the Muslim's cornerstone merriment.

In announcing the lockout, local patriarchs blamed Israel for disrupting the "traditional harmony and peace" between Christianity and Islam in Nazareth, and attempting "to promote electoral interests at the expense of the national unity of the Palestinian people across the land." The politically-charged statement claimed the "common bonds that link [the two faiths] in this city are firm," which included "a religious belief in the Virgin Mary as found in our Holy Books." There was absolutely no mention in the letter of the role of Muslim fanatics in provoking and prolonging a quarrel which threatens to detour pilgrims - including one Pope John Paul II - away from this centerpiece of Millennium observances.

The Vatican backed the closure, parodying its local representative, Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah, in an unusually strong rebuke of Israel's efforts to resolve a bitter religious conflict not of its own making. Even as the Muslim rally got underway, a Vatican spokesman said the Israeli decision was "creating the basis for instigating division," and threatened another church closure come Christmas Day and over the New Year. Though the Holy See has just confirmed the Pope's plans to visit the Holy Land next March - to the relief of Israeli authorities - whispers are he may drop Nazareth from his itinerary.

In response, Israel's Foreign Ministry "utterly rejected" the Vatican charges, saying it "unfortunately recalls the ancient practice of pointing the finger at the wrong cause" - taken by many as an allusion to anti-Semitism. Later, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak defended the cabinet committee set up to deal with the dispute for acting with "a great deal of sensitivity and understanding... We have absolutely no conspiracy with the Moslems against the Christians." The exchange easily marked the sharpest comments between Israel and the Vatican since they established formal relations in 1994.


THE SHRILL PAPAL EDICT unmistakably was induced by Sabbah, not exactly a class act when it comes to judging between Israel and anyone else in God's creation. An Arab noted for his robust sympathies for Palestinian nationalism, Sabbah has ventured well beyond accepted Vatican views in recent years when levelling criticism against the Jewish state. But this time, it appears to be a case of the tail waging the dog, as Sabbah already was on record charging Israel with "inciting a civil war between Muslims and Christians in Nazareth." His handiwork also saturates the joint notification of the church closure - how else to explain a Greek and an Armenian at such pains over the "national unity of the Palestinian people."

Granted, Israel should not have given in to Islamic militancy in Nazareth. A grand mosque simply has no place in the shadow of the Basilica, an outlook shared by such diverse figures as the mufti of Egypt, the Saudi Crown Prince, Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert and Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey. Muslims never flocked to the site to pray like they do now, ever since it was earmarked for Millennium tourism. And they won the right of encroachment by sheer intimidation. Israel has established a good record of navigating disputes over holy sites, especially considering the many contrived obstacles thrown in its path over the years. Hopefully, Barak's government will find a face-saving way out of this jam before the five intrusive minarets planned there rise heavenward... and before it starts costing Israel on the issue of Jerusalem.

But those who have followed this poignant saga closely know the Latin Patriarch slyly blamed Israel for inciting the aggressive Muslim behavior in Nazareth long before the government's compromise was hatched. Sabbah immediately faulted Israel back when radical Muslim youths rioted this past Christmas and Easter. Israeli authorities found themselves in the unenviable middle of Christian-Muslim tensions and honestly sought to avoid a repeat of the Muslim violence by suggesting both sides scale back their respective plans.

In contrast, the local church leaders have not been so honest. Privately, they know well the methods and ambitions of Islamic extremists. But to protect themselves, they commend their Muslim neighbors in public as close brethren, venting all anger instead towards a convenient Jewish target, whose reaction is predictably tame in comparison.

In essense, both Israeli authorities and local Arab Christians are exercising, each in their own way, instinctive survival mechanisms in response to endemic Islamic threats. One hopes to mollify Allah's brute squads in the Galilee as much as the other. But while local church leaders certainly have the right to close their doors in pacificist protest, they should not blindfold innocent Millennium pilgrims - much less the Holy See - into blaming the fire brigade for the work of arsonists.

David R. Parsons


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