NAZARETH, Israel -- Jerusalem is usually the place that dominates religious animosities in the Holy Land. But lately, Nazareth has been competing for attention in a dispute that's even aroused the Vatican.
It started two years ago with the demolition of a Muslim school. Since then, the dispute between Muslims and Christians in the city where Jesus grew up has sparked outbreaks of violence and become a crisis that threatens Pope John Paul II's trip next year to the Holy Land to celebrate the year 2000.
The school stood in the shadow of the Roman Catholic Basilica of the Annunciation, which commemorates the angel Gabriel's announcement to the Virgin Mary that she would bear the son of God.
City authorities tore down the school to make way for a public plaza that would provide a grander approach to the church in time for the millennium celebrations, when millions of tourists and pilgrims are expected in Israel.
The bitter quarrel that ensued is just one example of the passions that can be aroused on behalf of the three major religions in the Holy Land: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Muslims say they didn't realize what was happening at the time of the demolition because the area was blocked from view. Nor, apparently, did they attach much religious importance to the site. But that soon changed.
Inside the school was a mosque, they learned. Adjacent to it was not only a small Muslim graveyard but a tomb that some local Muslims say belongs to a nephew of Saladin, the Muslim warrior who expelled Christian Crusaders from the Holy Land in the 12th century.
Reports of work crews digging close to the tomb further inflamed Muslims.
"We knew we had to return the sanctity of the mosque by rebuilding," said local Muslim religious leader Nathem Mahmoud Abu Salim.
But this was no routine reconstruction. Muslims planned an 1,100-square-meter structure that would clearly compete for attention with the basilica. It would be built on pillars, amid palm trees, flowers and fountains.
The mosque's minaret, the tower from which a muezzin calls the faithful to prayer, would be big enough for visitors.
"Tourists would be able to see all of Nazareth with binoculars," said Taufiq Abu Ahmad, a spokesman for the United Arab Movement in Nazareth, the political party backing the local Muslims' cause.
To stake their claim to the sites, Muslims moved into the empty square, setting up a large tent as a makeshift mosque and keeping a round-the-clock vigil.
"This is the only mosque that is open 24 hours," Abu Ahmad said proudly.
Local Catholics were furious. They demanded that the mosque be built elsewhere and said the Muslims were occupying the site illegally. Muslims said the area was owned by the Waqf, the official Muslim charity, but Israeli courts have held that it is public land.
The tent has been the scene of at least two violent clashes between Muslims and non-Muslims in this overwhelmingly Arab city -- one last Christmas and the other at Easter.
Accounts differ on who provoked the clash April 4. Muslims say stones were thrown at them while they were sleeping under the tent canopy. They raised a cry on their loudspeaker and were joined by Muslim toughs. A riot ensued.
The Catholic bishop of Nazareth, Giacinto Boulos Marcuzzo, says 14 Christians were injured in the first melee, 51 in the second.
"Shops were broken, cars were broken, and Christian signs were taken away or broken, crosses and Christmas trees and so on," he said.
Loudspeakers in and around the tent mosque, and in a nearby square, fill downtown with the sounds of the Friday midday sermon in Arabic, which all but obliterates the more delicate noon church bells from the basilica's tower.
It's not just the noise that disturbs Marcuzzo, but the content.
"On the loudspeakers all the time they were speaking against Christians, against the church and against the Jubilee," he said. "It was really too much, too much, too much."
, Enmeshed in politics
The dispute is heavily infused with local politics. The Christian mayor, whose coalition includes Communists, is at loggerheads with the council, which the Muslim political party controls by one vote. The traditional cooperation between Nazareth's Muslims and Christians has been deeply damaged, residents say. Orthodox Christians have sided with Catholics.
Mayor Ramez Jaryseh was attacked by thugs and slightly injured Saturday night as he was leaving a party solidarity rally. Police later arrested two men and said they assumed the attack was connected with the dispute over the mosque.
Drawn in reluctantly, the Israeli government found itself trapped amid competing pressures. The government wants to improve relations with the Vatican before the pope's trip in 2000, a major public-relations boost for the Jewish state, but it does not want to further aggrieve Israel's largely Muslim Arab population.
So the Israeli government developed a take-it-or-leave-it compromise: a scaled-down, 700-square-foot mosque could be built at the site, with some kind of separation from the public square leading to the basilica. Importantly, it would not be built during the millennium year, officials say. The Muslims must vacate their tent site by Nov. 8. The plan also calls for a police station at the site.
The government's plan was announced this week, accepted by the mayor, but rejected by the Catholics.
"They put disorder in the town, they put confusion in the town and now they receive a reward?" Marcuzzo demanded. "And we, we bring many people to Israel, we bring a lot of money to Israel and we are treated like that? Where is the dignity?"
"We deplore this decision," Patriarch Michel Sabbah, the Holy Land's highest ranking Roman Catholic official, wrote to Israeli President Ezer Weizman. "It is the legitimization and approbation of all threats, insults and attacks against Christians carried out to date by the Islamic group leading the campaign to build the mosque."
Marcuzzo rejects suggestions that the site is important to Islam, saying the Muslims are making such a claim merely to incite the population.
The tomb belongs to a 19th-century Islamic figure of the same name, Shihab el din, as Saladin's nephew, Marcuzzo and other Christians say.
The bishop accused the Israeli government of caving in to political pressure, noting that Israel has many more Muslims than Christians. "This is very, very dangerous," the bishop said.
Two weeks ago, Israel's internal security minister, Shlomo Ben Ami, played down concerns expressed by Catholic officials in Nazareth, who said the conflict could derail the pope's trip.
The Vatican objects
After a meeting here with the papal nuncio, Ben Ami told reporters that he had briefed him on the planned compromise and said: "I never heard [the words], 'The Vatican objects.' "
However, on Thursday, the Vatican did just that. In a statement, spokesman Joaquin Navarro said: "The decision to authorize the building of a mosque a few meters from the historic Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth worries not only the Secretariat of State but also the Catholic Church in the Holy Land.
"The pope voices his solidarity with everyone and is particularly close to the Christians in Nazareth," he said. The dispute, he said pointedly, "is of no help" in planning the pope's trip.
The Israeli government is considering sending an emissary to the Vatican to explain its position.
Muslims weren't satisfied either. They seem ready to scale down mosque plans and are willing to postpone construction for several months. But they reject the idea of a barrier and say they will refuse to vacate the tent until construction gets under way.
At Friday's midday prayer service at the mosque, Imam Nazzam Abu Salim Sakafi delivered a fiery sermon with an extra note of defiance: Referring to the wall, he said that Jews used to be forced to live in ghettos, "and now they want us to live in ghettos in Nazareth."
As he spoke, an overflow crowd of Muslim faithful listened in silence. Pressed into the space between the tent and the street, the worshipers left their shoes in neat rows along the road.
European tourists descending the hill from the basilica moved hesitantly between the shoes, traffic and an Italian television crew.
Although the Muslims say they want to negotiate and avoid violence, they are risking a confrontation with Israeli security.
Asked what would happen if the tent mosque were still occupied Nov. 8, an Israeli official said calmly that the government would "do what is necessary to carry out the decision."
The crisis has stymied the city's preparations for the millennium.
It also holds implications for future negotiations over the fate of Jerusalem, which is holy to Jews, Muslims and Christians. Jerusalem is among the explosive questions to be settled in "final status" talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
The bitterness in Nazareth seems to have diminished the possibility of a Muslim-Christian alliance that Palestinian leaders hoped would add weight to their negotiations with Israel.
At the same time, it has opened new and potentially lasting strains between Israel and the Catholic Church.
"This is now the deep question," Marcuzzo said. "Can we anymore believe the authorities are able to protect holy places in Nazareth, Jerusalem, everywhere?"
Pub Date: 10/19/99