BY TIM PERKINS
Tilt: VATIC:AN has warned Israeli officials that their decision to turn a blind eye to the construction of a mosque next to one of Christianity's most important churches will foment tensions between Christians and Muslims.
Cardinal Walter Kasper, president for the Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with Judaism, told the Israeli government that the construction of the mosque next to the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth did "not. help relations between Christians and Muslims" and "might generate problems" in the town.
The one-acre plot next to the basilica had been designated for an Italian-style piazza to accommodate the influx of pilgrims expected in the Jubilee Year, but a fundamentalist splinter group, the Islamic Movement of Nazareth, claimed ownership of the land. They cited the existence of an ancient tomb holding the remains of Saladin's soldiers as evidence of their right to the plot.
Saladin is revered by Muslims for his defeat of the crusaders in the battle for Jerusalem in 1187.
Israeli courts ruled in October 1999 that the land did not belong to the Waqf, an Islamic religious trust. Nonetheless, it allocated one third of the plot to the Islamists for construction of the mosque. The remaining area would be under the control of Christians.
With support from the Pope, Patriarch Michel Sabbah, the leader of the Latin-rite Chureh in the Holy Land, and other Christian leaders, sent a letter of protest to the then Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, urging that the mosque not be built.
"We believe that the place currently proposed for the building of a mosque — besides being government-owned property — is not compatible with the larger vision of peace and harmony among all the faith communities in Nazareth and will remain an unfortunate source of friction and dispute in the future," the letter said.
Shlomo Ben Ami, Israel's then Public Security Minister, denied receiving the letter.
In a separate letter to the Israeli President Ezer Weizman, Patriarch Sabbah warned that the decision would mean "the legitimisation and approbation of all threats, insults and attacks against Christians". He claimed that it indicated "real discrimination by the State of Israel against its Christian citizens" and was "a grave historical mistake committed by the government of Israel with no precedent whatsoever".
Israeli Minister of Tourism, Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, responded that "the proof that the decision is a fair one is that both sides are not very happy".
Although Palestinian by blood and culture, the 60,000 inhabitants of Nazareth are Israeli citizens. Since the birth of Christ. Christians and Muslims have co-existed peacefully in the city. The conflict has inflamed tensions, resulting in intermittent clashes and antiChristian vandalism.
The decision to allow the construction of the mosque has been widely condemned, by leaders of both the Christian and Muslim faiths.
Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian Supreme Muslim Council and the muftis of both Jerusalem and Cairo joined the Vatican and the Latin Patriarch in denouncing the decision.
Saudi Prince Ahdullah bin Abdul-Aziz even offered to personally pay for the construc
tion of the mosque at any alternate site in the city. His offer was not accepted.
Although building permits had not yet been granted, construction of the mosque began last week. The move elicited no response from Israeli authorities.
Such a permissive attitude stands in stark contrast to policies in the West Bank and Gaza in which many Palestinian homes are razed, ostensibly because the structures have no such permits.