The Vatican recently issued a statement condemning the building of a Muslim mosque near the Basilica of the Annunciation in the Israeli city of Nazareth. The October 14 statement, which threatened Israel with the cancellation of an anticipated Papal visit to the Holy Land, stands to significantly raise tensions between Muslims and Christians in the area. But the mutual hostility, as volatile as it may be, perhaps has more to do with Israeli government meddling in the issue than with any irreconcilable differences between Muslims and Christians.
The plot of land near the basilica has been a source of tension ever since Nazareth's Islamic Movement, representing the city's 70 percent Muslim population, decided two years ago to build a new mosque/school complex on the 2,000 square meter plot adjoining the church. Muslims claim the land is Waqf property, or land entrusted to the Islamic community. While Christians believe the basilica is where the Angel Gabriel told the Virgin Mary she was to give birth to the Messiah, the adjoining plot is revered by Muslims as the burial place of a Muslim sage who was Saladin's nephew.
Christians, represented by the city's Christian-born mayor, Ramez Jarayseh, want the entire area converted into a Venetian style plaza to accommodate pilgrims. But Muslims have erected a temporary prayer tent on the land and staged protests over their right to build. Tensions exploded this past Easter when Israeli police had to break up a riot between Christians and Muslims.
Israeli officials are no doubt working hard to keep the peace and avoid a major conflict that would exacerbate the frustrations of its Arab Muslim minority and jeopardize Israel's anticipated economic benefits from an influx of Christian tourists with the coming of the year 2000. But as a whole, the Israeli government has been a rather inept mediator by giving conflicting signals to both sides.
At first, the government seemed to favor the Muslims over the Christians, saying that Muslims had a right to build on the land. While local tensions were clearly evident over the decision, the latest degree of pressure from the Vatican comes only after Israeli courts sided with the Christians, saying in an October 7 ruling that the land was not Waqf property and therefore did not belong to Muslims.
But the Israeli government, represented in negotiations by Public Security Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, subsequently appeared, from a Christian perspective, to again side with the Muslims when he proposed the postponed building of a smaller mosque in the year 2001, when millenium celebrations are completed. The Vatican, in an official release, seems to support Israel's role in the mediation, calling on the Israeli government to "assure respect for the Christian shrine and its free and peaceful access to pilgrims." But reactions from other Christian sources seem to evidence exasperation at the government's ambiguity in the negotiations. The BBC reported on October 6 that Church officials were "fed-up" with the government's failure to take a stand. One official is quoted as saying: "No mosque and no compromise."
Muslims, as well, are undoubtedly frustrated by the status of negotiations. According to an October 14 report from the Hamas-backed Palestinian Information Center, the chief Muslim negotiator in the conflict, Suleiman Abu Ahmed, has agreed in principal to the latest compromise for the construction of a smaller mosque, but is unhappy with Israeli stipulations that the mosque be hidden from the church's view by a wall. Other contentious issues for Muslims include the closing of the temporary prayer tent and the long delay in building the mosque. And while Israel's latest decision is perhaps seen as a victory for the Muslims, the October 7 court decision could have a more lasting negative impact and furthermore be the basis for a later rescinding of the current agreement. The Israeli judges in the court case ruled that the property belonged to the state since Ottoman times and therefore did not belong to Muslims. Furthermore, the court warned that the Israeli government would generally refuse to recognize the sacred Islamic principal of Waqf. In a statement quoted by Haaretz on October 8, the judges declared, "The State of Israel does not see eye to eye with the Waqf regarding its alleged eternal right to real estate."
But Christians in Israel and Palestine have generally been supportive of Muslim causes, including the right of Palestinian statehood. A 1997 message from the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, written by Father Labib Kobti, calls for an end to the "new cold war against Islam" perpetrated in the Israeli and Western media. Kobti, who also wrote a direct letter to the Israeli government calling for greater respect of Palestinian rights, called on Christians to resist the negative stereotypes and recalled the long history of mutual respect of Muslims and Christians in the Middle East. "Please, try to look on your hearts," he writes, "We Christians and Muslims, we love each other."
Muslims involved in the dispute have themselves largely tried to reject the urge towards large-scale religious hostility. Following the outbreak of violence in April, thousands of Nazarene Muslims staged a May Day march to condemn the racism and religious division evidenced in the riots. The Palestinian Information Center quotes one Muslim official as rejecting the premise that the basilica could not coexist with a mosque. "Mosques and churches stand side by side all over the world," he said, as quoted by the BBC. The same report quotes Suleiman Ahmed as saying he was opposed to the Israeli-proposed building of a wall to hide the mosque because he did not want to create a monument to the recent Christian-Muslim divide. Ahmed said, "We don't want to see dividing walls that remind people that this place was a point of contention between Muslims and Christians." An October 15 Haaretz report says that Ahmed reacted to the recent Vatican statement with disappointment, revealing that he had wanted the Pope to lay the cornerstone for the mosque during his visit to Nazareth.
Given the history of Christian and Muslim cooperation in the Middle East and the mutual respect which seems more or less intact despite the recent conflict, it seems clear the Israeli government could be doing a better job mediating the dispute. The current settlement has left both sides unhappy. Christians fear their needs in the upcoming pilgrimage season will not be adequately met while Muslims have to settle for a smaller, hidden mosque on property that has been declared to not belong to them.
But Christians and Muslims should not expect the Israeli government to solve their problems for them, especially if Israel is indeed guilty of fomenting division. Christians and Muslims need to bridge the gap themselves, perhaps by first learning to communicate directly with each other. If Christians are primarily concerned with respect for the basilica and the needs of Christian pilgrims, is the construction of a mosque in the vicinity really a cause for such alarm given the close proximity of Christian and Muslim places of worship elsewhere?
Zakariya Wright is a staff writer at iviews.com