Background to the Controversy
- Original Proposal for Land
The Basilica of the Annunciation is the principal Christian shrine in Nazareth. In 1996, the Israeli Tourism Ministry planned a plaza and bus parking area on public land adjacent to the Basilica as part of Nazareth 2000.
- Claims of Muslim Protesters Rejected by Court
Since 1997, protesters organized by the Islamic Movement have occupied this land, demanding the construction of a mosque instead of a plaza. They claim the land is Islamic Trust land because of a small, abandoned shrine to Shahab A-Din, an Islamic scholar. This claim was recently rejected by an Israeli District Court, which held the land is public land.
- Barak Government's "Compromise"
Despite the court's decision, the Barak government has granted permission for the construction of the mosque on what the court has concluded is public land. This "compromise" involves removal of the Islamic protest tent and laying of a cornerstone for a smaller mosque (which took place at the end of November 1999). In order to avoid confrontation with the 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 and Christian residents and pilgrims will be given various guarantees regarding access to the Basilica and protection from harassment.
Church's Concerns About the "Compromise"
On its face, the proposed "compromise" might sound reasonable. It becomes highly problematic, however, if one understands the wider context. The Church's concerns are deeply rooted in the religious significance of Nazareth for Christians around the world, as well as in the more practical fear that the Israeli government's decision in this case might set a poor precedent for resolution of similar controversies in the future and contributes to divisions between Christians and Muslims. The Vatican has spoken strongly against the compromise, as have the U.S. bishops in letters to President Clinton and the Israeli ambassador.
Recent events, such as the closure by the Christian churches of all major shrines in Israel on November 22 and 23, 1999, and their joint statements in opposition, illustrate that what the Israeli government considers a compromise has not allayed the very real and legitimate concerns of Christians. In fact, despite their repeated representations to the government and their requests for meetings, the Christian churches were not consulted in the formulation of the so-called "compromise."
- Anti-Christian Islamic Movements
The demands for a mosque are seen as a provocative, anti-Christian act on the part of Islamist extremists (eg, the Islamic Movement) who seek to partially block access to the Basilica, provide occasion for confrontation with Christian worshipers, and use public address systems to disrupt Christian services. Fortunately, these extremists do not represent the wider Muslim community and their demands for a mosque have been opposed by Muslim religious and political leaders alike.
- The Israeli Government's Acquiescence to the Demands of Extremists
The Christian leaders of the Holy Land view the government's support for the demands of a small group of Islamic militants, despite the recent court decision, as an act of discrimination against a small and increasingly marginalized Christian community. They see the government's action as part of an effort to gain votes amidst shifting political allegiances in the area, and as contributing to Muslim-Christian tensions and divisions within the Palestinian community. On November 24, Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said: "The Israeli government decision seems to lay the foundations for future disputes and tensions between the two religious communities, Christian and Islam. I feel that, in this matter, the political authorities have a great responsibility as, instead of supporting unity, they create the foundations for fomenting dissent."
- Israeli Stewardship of Holy Places and Protections for Minorities
For Christians, this is not simply a matter of local politics or inter-religious tensions but has serious consequences for the future of the Holy Places and for the Christian communities of the Holy Land. Confidence in Israeli stewardship of the Holy Places is undermined by the erratic policing related to the mosque protests last April, when police were slow to respond to attacks on Christians by mosque supporters after Easter services; the involvement of some government officials in politicizing this controversy; and the government's acquiescence to militant demands, which has only exacerbated a feeling of extreme vulnerability by the small, indigenous Christian population.
Muslim Opposition to the Mosque
Numerous Muslim leaders and groups have opposed the mosque, claiming that it is an unnecessary provocation that causes divisions between Christians and Muslims. On November 21, the Higher Islamic Council of Jerusalem, which is close to the Palestinian Authority, released a communique calling for a postponement of the cornerstone-laying ceremony. On December 1, Grand Mufti Nasr Farid Wassel of Egypt, the country's highest religious authority, urged that another location be found, saying that "Those who pray in that mosque would take on a measure of responsibility for fueling the 'fitna' [internal dissensions between Christians and Muslims] and will have to answer to God and his Prophet for the evil he would inflict on the citizens. This goes for all those who give their consent to the construction." Saudi Arabia, the guardian of Islam's holiest shrines offered to pay for a new mosque at an alternative spot in Nazareth, away from the Basilica, to avoid friction, but this has been rejected. The Muslim Public Affairs Council in the United States has also called for a postponement.
Urge your Member to contact the Israeli Ambassador and urge a reconsideration of the government's decision to permit construction of the mosque.
USCC letters to President Clinton and the Israeli Ambassador (11/99); detailed backgrounder (11/99)
More information: Gerard Powers, 202-541-3199 (ph), 202-541-3339 (fax); www.usccb.org/sdwp/international