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The Murder of Yasser Arafat: "Powerful" - The Times of London

Sunday, 6 July 2003

Mosque destroyed, Nazareth remains divided

Muslims vow they'll try to rebuild

SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
Sunday, July 6, 2003

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Nazareth, Israel -- Christians here are quietly celebrating after Israeli bulldozers moved in last week to destroy the foundations of an illegal mosque being built next to the Church of the Annunciation in the boyhood town of Jesus.

But few people in Nazareth expect this will be the end of the affair, which has pitted Muslims against Christians, Arabs against Jews, and the Vatican against Israel.

Local Christian leaders were keeping a low profile, wary of a fresh outbreak of the riots that swept the city in May 1999, when the Vatican branded the planned building of the Shihab al-Din mosque "a provocation." Since then, tensions have simmered. Last May, the Brethren Church in this northern Israeli city was hit by four Molotov cocktails after rumors circulated that the congregation was evangelizing among Muslims.

"We're celebrating, but privately and behind closed doors," said a Christian spokesman on condition of anonymity.

The dispute split the city council of Nazareth, whose nearly 60,000 inhabitants are 30 percent Christian and 70 percent Muslim. Mayor Rames Jarrisi, a Christian, spent last Tuesday morning in a police helicopter over the city, supervising the demolition operation. He had campaigned for years against the mosque.

Many local Muslims -- though certainly not all -- called the decision to destroy the mosque "a provocation."

"It is being done for no reason," said Salman Abu Ahmed, a Muslim who is the city's deputy mayor. "It is the first time that a mosque has been demolished in this country. I haven't heard of any synagogue or church being demolished in this country. It goes against the consensus here."

But Atef Fahoum, son of a former mayor and trustee of the White Mosque, the oldest in Nazareth, said the demand for a new mosque on the contested site had more to do with politics than religion. "I went to that school as a child, when the British were still here, and there was never a mosque on that site," said Fahoum. "They are just doing this to make trouble. I'm very sad. We are not accustomed to such trouble in Nazareth. For hundreds of years we have lived in peace and love and harmony. We don't like troublemakers."

Natan Sharansky, an Israeli Cabinet minister who chaired the last of three separate government inquiries into the planned mosque, expressed relief that "finally justice and law are being restored to Nazareth."

"How were these mosque foundations built?" asked Sharansky. "They were built as a result of a chain of scandals, violence, blackmail and threats. There would be a sea of blood if they were not allowed to illegally build a mosque on a holy Christian site."

RUMORS OF PAPAL VISIT

The dispute began in 1997. The millennium was approaching and there were rumors that Pope John Paul II would visit the Holy Land. The Oslo peace process was in full swing, and the Israeli economy was booming.

Tourism was expanding, and the Christians of Nazareth expected millions of pilgrims to visit the spot where the Virgin Mary had been told she would have a baby. So the city fathers decided to raze an aging municipal school building next to the Church of the Annunciation to make way for a new city plaza.

The area was flattened, awaiting a final decision from the local planning committee. But there remained in one corner of the site an ancient tomb believed to belong to Shihab al-Din, nephew of the Muslim warrior Salah al-Din, who died fighting the Crusaders.

A small Muslim group moved onto the site, erected a tent and declared it "Waqf" -- inalienable Muslim holy land. They said they would build a mosque on the site and began preparing plans and finances.

The city council refused to give planning permission. The mayor said that land records showed the old school site had been owned by the local municipality since Ottoman times. A local court ruled that the land belonged not to the municipality, but to the national government. Then the politics began.

A controversial decision by the government to allow the building of a mosque on the site was greeted with dismay by Christians all the way up to the pope himself.

Some observers said it was a blatant attempt by the right-leaning government of Benjamin Netanyahu to attract Muslim votes in the 1999 election. It failed. Netanyahu lost to Ehud Barak, whose government also approved the plan.

But the Nazareth council continued to object. Christians called a "strike" and shut down the country's churches in protest just before Christmas 2001. More pressure was piled on as the pope and President Bush both referred to the dispute. Finally, in March 2002, Sharansky's committee blocked the building plan and offered the Muslims a larger site less than half a mile away.

Back in Nazareth, building work began anyway. Unhindered by Israeli authorities or municipal inspectors, pro-mosque campaigners began laying the foundations of a vast complex, completing three underground levels before they were stopped.

TO SUPREME COURT

The case went all the way to the Israeli Supreme Court, which also rejected the case for the mosque, triggering Tuesday's demolition operation.

Professor Yosef Dan of the Hebrew University said the failure of the campaigners to erect the mosque was of historic proportions, calling it "the first Christian success in the Muslim world for 60 years."

"It was only the unbridled support of three bodies -- the Vatican, the European Union and the United States -- that enabled the Israeli government to take the decision to destroy the mosque in Nazareth," said Dan. "Without this unprecedented unity in the West, Israel wouldn't dare to send bulldozers to destroy the foundations of a mosque."

But the campaigners said their struggle was far from over.

"This is a black day," conceded Nawwaf Al-Zoeby, at the Shihab al-Din mosque. "They demolished the mosque because we don't have a building license. We'll continue with the procedures to try and get a permit and build the mosque."

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