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Crisis in Nazareth

 

Background Information

Nazareth Today

Nazareth, the site of Jesus' boyhood and his private life, along with Haifa, is today one of the major concentrations of Christians in Israel. The city, however, as a growing Muslim majority. In recent years, the city's old political alliances between long-time Muslim and Christian residents have been challenged by more radical political groups representing Muslims who came to Nazareth during and after the 1948 Israeli War of Independence.

History of the Conflict

In 1996, the Israeli Tourism Ministry proposed improvements in the city of Nazareth, as part of a master plan for Israel 2000 (and Nazareth 2000), which included a park and bus parking area on public land adjacent to the Basilica of the Annunciation, the principal Christian shrine in the city.

In the fall of 1997, protestors organized by the Islamic Movement occupied municipal land which had been designated for the "Italian-style piazza", erecting a "protest tent" on the site. The protestors demanded the abandonment of plans for construction of the plaza, and insisted on the construction of a mosque in its place. In 1998 elections, the Islamists (Islamic Movement) won a majority of one in the city council. The Christian mayor was re-elected with the support of a Christian-Muslim coalition (Hadash). The result has been a stalemate in local government.

The alleged basis for the protestors' demand was that the site included a small, abandoned shrine to Shahab A-Din, a scholarly nephew of Saladin. The Islamists demanded the whole site alleging that the shrine showed it was Islamic trust (Waqf) land. An Israeli District Court, however, in a recent decision, determined that the property was not "Waqf" property but Israeli state land.

Nonetheless, the Israeli government of Prime Minister Ehud Barak has granted permission for the construction of the mosque on this public land. A two-year old Islamic protest tent is to be taken down, and a cornerstone for the mosque is to be laid November 8. At the same time, to avoid confrontation with the projected visit of Pope John Paul II and millions of Christians during the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000, the mosque will not be erected until 2001 with various provisions promised for the protection of Christian residents and pilgrims. While the national government intervened in the matter of the proposed plaza, it has not yet exercised its right to take over the deadlocked city government.

The Nature of the Problem

From the point of view of the Church (In Israel, on this matter and other selected issues "Church" refers to all the traditional Christian churches, including the Greek Orthodox, Latin and Armenian patriarchates), the problem has three facets:

  1.     Anti-Christian attitudes of Islamist activists;
  2.     the significance of the crisis for Christian residents of Israel, and
  3.     the ambiguous role of the Israeli government.

Anti-Christian Attitudes of Islamist Activists

While local Christian-Muslim relations have been generally good at many levels in Israel and in the Palestinian Self-Rule Areas, over the past couple of years there has been a rise in anti-Christian activity on the part of Islamist extremists throughout the region. There is no evidence that the Islamists were encouraged by the Palestinian Authority, as alleged by the office of former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. In fact, the Palestinian Authority has acted quickly and firmly against them.

In the spring of 1998, there were no less than a half dozen ongoing Islamic occupations or protests against Christians in Israel; and at Easter that year Muslim gangs harassed Christians in many urban neighborhoods and outlying villages. The occupation of the municipal land in Nazareth was part of this wave of anti-Christian activity. At Easter this year (1999), partisans of the Islamic Movement attacked Christian worshipers as they were leaving Holy Saturday services, and a couple of days of inter-group violence ensued. Israeli police refrained from intervening to stop the violence until the Christian leaders in the Holy Land closed all the churches in protest during Easter week. Just this month (October), the Arab Christian mayor of Nazareth, Ramiz Jaraisy (Gerasi), was beaten by members of the opposing Islamist party.

From the beginning, the choice of the property adjacent to the Basilica of the Annunciation appears to have been an act of provocation. A common tactic of fundamentalist Islamic groups in the region is to erect sites close to Christian churches, partially blocking access, providing occasion for confrontation with worshipers, and loudly broadcasting messages over public address systems during Christian services. Since the Nazareth land had been designated for a piazza and bus park for the millennium the protest appears to have been aimed at disrupting Jubilee observances in Nazareth. The construction of a mosque on the site would interfere with preparations for the Great Jubilee, and it would reduce the access of large numbers of pilgrims to the Basilica by limiting the parking possibilities for pilgrimage buses.

Muslim Opposition to the Project

It is important to know that many Muslims have opposed the Islamists' demands. Nazarene Muslims belonging to other parties have opposed the mosque proposal, bringing about the deadlock in local government. Muslim leaders throughout Israel and the Palestinian territories and Yasser Arafat, the president of the Palestinian Authority, have opposed the mosque. In addition, Arab governments and muftis throughout the region have criticized the move.

The Significance of the Conflict for the Christians of the Holy Land

The vast majority of the Christians of the Holy Land are concentrated in Galilee. Until recently, the erosion of the Christian population in the Holy Land (Israel, Palestinian Territories, Jerusalem and Jordan) has largely come from the West Bank. There neglect under Jordanian rule from 1948-1967, Israeli occupation, the intifada, and an inconclusive peace process have encouraged emigration. While for many years there has been extensive Christian emigration from the West Bank, in recent years discrimination against Arabs in Israel, competition with new immigrants to Israel, and prejudice on the part of some Muslims has led to increased immigration of Christians from Israel proper. The success of Islamist extremists will add a further, strong incentive for Christians to emigrate from Israel under the perception that they are caught between Islamists on the one hand and the ambiguous policies of the Israeli government on the other.

At the very least, the recent government decision will increase the Christians' sense of discrimination against them and create occasion for future, and possibly increased, Muslim-Christian confrontation in the city. Solidarity with the Christians of the Holy Land and preservation of their living communities of faith are primary commitments of the Holy See and of the U.S. Catholic Church. For the Churches around the world the loss of the Christian population of Galilee would be an enormous blow, depriving the land of Jesus of any sizable indigenous Christian population and turning the holy places into museums rather than centers of worship of living Christian communities.

The Ambiguous Role of the Government of Israel

The Israeli government has played an ambiguous role in this conflict. In the early stages, officials promised that a mosque would not be built and that the case would be adjudicated in court. More recently, however, the Barak government has declared that the court decision on the ownership of the land adjacent to the basilica does not decide the case, and it has gone on to approve the construction of a mosque on the property. The latest "compromise" proposed by the inter-ministerial committee, moreover, supersedes one presented last May by the Netanyahu government that would have permitted only the building of a shrine rather than a mosque.

The committee's ruling is further confused by the politicking by members of the government over the issue . Last winter and spring, ministers from three coalition parties (Likud, Shas and Agudat Israel) vied with one another over the Muslim vote, promising to take action in favor of the Islamists' demand for a mosque. Now, the Israel One government coalition appears to have moved even further in the same direction, approving the erection of the mosque. Interior Minister Shlomo Ben Ami has given assurances that a variety of measures will be taken to assure the safety of Christian worshipers and pilgrims. In addition to delayed construction of the mosque, the mosque's exit will move people away from the basilica, and a pilgrim police station will be established nearby.

Role of Police

The role of security forces in the conflict, however, has also been quite muddled. At times, police have held back from preventing the harassment of Christians and from restraining inter-group violence until the threat of church closure brought pressure on the government. Furthermore, police protection at the Holy Places, except in the Old City of Jerusalem, has been spotty, leading to a lack of trust on the part of Christians in government promises of protection. For example, in East Jerusalem, despite numerous complaints and appeals, police protection of religious personnel and pilgrims has been generally lacking, contributing to conditions that allowed the murder of Franciscan friars at Gethsemane. At the same time as the Islamic Movement was growing in Israel, the Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's Office was dispersing reports that the Palestinian Authority was behind Muslim persecution of Christians in the Palestinian Territories. The truth, however, is that the Palestinian Authority was quite firm in dealing with harassment of Christians and, when incidents occurred, has provided police action to protect Christians and their sites.

Church Responses

The Holy See has taken an active interest in the Nazareth issue, receiving assurances from the Government of Israel that no mosque would be built on the controverted site. The local Church, including Greek Orthodox, Latin and Armenian patriarchates and other churches, protested last Easter's violence by closing the churches for two days, and it has responded to the latest government decision by threatening to close the churches for Christmas.

In a letter dated October 14 to the Israeli President Ezer Weizman, signed by the Latin (Roman Catholic) Patriarch Michel Sabbah on behalf of the heads of Churches in Jerusalem, local church leaders described the government decision as "a decision that rewards an aggressor and punishes the victim. "The letter continued, "It is a real discrimination by the State of Israel against its Christian citizens."

Patriarch Sabbah, in conversations with Israeli officials during a recent trip to the United States, proposed that a mosque could be built in another area of town, or perhaps an interfaith dialogue center might be built on the contested site. These recommendations have been supported by Bishop Joseph A. Fiorenza, the president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (USA), in an October 21 letter to the Israeli Ambassador to the United States, Zalman Shoval.

Summary

Most of the Christian population of the Holy Land is concentrated in Galilee. While for many years there has been extensive Christian emigration from the West Bank, in recent years discrimination against Arabs in Israel, competition with new immigrants to Israel, and prejudice on the part of some Muslims has led to increased immigration of Christians from Israel proper. Nazareth, the site of Jesus's boyhood and private life, though a major Christian center, is now a majority Muslim town. Islamist (radical political Islamic) activity now threatens to incite major Christian emigration from the Holy Land.

The Islamist protest, though political in nature, has taken an anti-Christian form. The occupation next to the basilica was directed against Christians and the celebration of the Great Jubilee. It has been accompanied by violence and harassment against Christians. Approval for construction of the mosque is regarded by the churches as an act of discrimination by the State of Israel against Christians, and by Israeli commentators as a violation of Israel's stewardship of the Holy Places. Erection of the mosque will also serve as a strong incentive for Christian emigration from Israel, diminishing further the alarmingly small Christian population of the Holy Land. Israeli government assurances of measures protecting Christians and their holy sites are thrown into question by the erratic policing in Nazareth, the involvement of government officials in the ongoing crisis, and the failure to police the neighborhoods of Christian shrines in East Jerusalem.

History of Tension over proposed mosque:

1997
  • Israeli Tourism Ministry proposes "Italian-style piazza" for Nazareth as part of its master plan for Israel 2000
  • Islamist protestors occupy land adjacent to the Basilica of the Annunciation demanding the proposed piazza be replaced with a mosque.
1998    
  • Ongoing Islamist occupations and protests against Christians in many places, harassment of Christians and vandalism of churches at Easter
  • Voters re-elect Christian mayor, backed by a Christian-Muslim coalition, and a Muslim majority (of one) to city council in municipal elections, resulting in a stalemated city government.
  • Israeli officials promise the Holy See and American church officials that the mosque issue will be decided in court.
1999    
  • Christians attacked by Islamists after Easter services; intergroup violence ensues while Israeli police are disengaged.
  • Police act after Church authorities close all churches for two days.
  • Ministers from three right-wing Israeli parties contend for Muslim votes in Galilee, promising government intervention with the building of the Mosque.
  • Inter-ministerial committee of the outgoing Netanyahu government offers a compromise: permission to build a shrine on one-quarter of the site.
  • Israel District Court decides the suit against the Islamists.
  • Barak government inter-ministerial committee offers new "compromise": permission to construct a mosque.
  • Churches threaten to close churches for Christmas in protest.
  • Cornerstone laying set for November 8.

 



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