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INTOLERANCE IN THE HOLY LAND

Christianity, Islam, Judaism in conflict
in Jesus' home town

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Sponsored link.


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Overview

Since 1996, a conflict has existed in Nazareth where Jesus Christ (called Yeshua of Nazareth at the time) lived as a boy. The Roman Catholic church operates the Basilica of the Annunciation on the location where they believe the Angel Gabriel informed Mary that she was pregnant through the action of the Holy Spirit. Nearby is a plot of land owned by a Muslim trust. The Christian mayor of Nazareth, and many other local Christians, favor the conversion of the land into an open plaza where pilgrims might gather prior to visiting the basilica. The Muslims wish to erect a mosque on the site. The occupying authority, Israel, wants to encourage tourism and to keep this and other disputes from escalating into violence. 

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Religious buildings in Nazareth

According to the Bible, Luke 1:26-38, the Angel Gabriel told the Virgin Mary that she would shortly become pregnant with Jesus. Mary was living in Nazareth at the time. No records survive from the 1st century BCE that might shed some light on the exact location in Nazareth where this event took place. However, there are two churches in Nazareth, each operated by a different Christian group, each  believing their church to be the location of Gabriel's visit:

bulletThe Basilica of the Annunciation: This is "the most impressive architectural and artistic monument in the town" of Nazareth. It is a Roman Catholic basilica, built over a crypt which encloses the Grotto of the Virgin where one tradition states that the Annunciation occurred. It is the latest of five churches on this site. The first was built in 365 CE by Helen, the mother of the Emperor Constantine. The fifth, a Franciscan church, was dismantled in 1955 to make room for the present basilica which was completed in 1969.
bulletChurch of St. Gabriel: This complex is composed of a church, and Mary's Well. Some of the apocryphal gospels state that the well was the actual location of the Annunciation. The church was completed in the middle of the 18th century by the Greek Orthodox Church.

The Church of St. Joseph which belongs to the Franciscans, is also located in Nazareth. It is believed by some to have been built on the location of Joseph's workshop. Others believe that the worshop is under the convent of the Dames de Nazareth; still others say that it was at the Church of St. Joseph. Nazareth is also home to Marionite, Nazarene, Anglican, Coptic, Baptist and Salesian churches, as well as a mosque and a number of convents.

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The conflict

Of all of these religious buildings, the largest is the Basilica of the Annunciation. Some 100 meters (330 feet) away is a plot of land containing  the burial place of Shehab el-Din, nephew of the famous Muslim hero, Saladin (1138 to 1193 CE). He was the military leader who forced the Christian Crusaders out of the Holy Land in the 12th century. The Muslim trust which owns of the land decided to build a mosque there. The mayor of Nazareth, Ramez Jeraise, a Christian, wanted to convert the area into an open square, to handle the expected flow of Christian pilgrims. The mostly Muslim representatives on the municipal government were in favor of the mosque. 

The Muslims opened a protest tent on the land where they wanted to build the mosque. It became the focal point of continuing tensions and violence. In 1998 the Israeli Public Security Ministry established a committee to resolve the problem. 4

The Israeli government decided on a compromise: two thirds of the area would become an open plaza; a mosque would be built on the other third. 

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Reactions to the conflict

The Israeli decision appears acceptable to the local Muslims. It was unacceptable to many the Christians in the area. 

bulletIn 1999-APR, after two days of religiously motivated violence in Nazareth which injured 12 people, the mayor agreed to not block the building of the mosque. 
bulletIn 1999-OCT, Monsignor Pietro Sambi, the Vatican's envoy to Israel criticized the Israeli decision. He said that it jeopardized the pope's visit in the year 2000. He said that the plans to build a mosque were a "provocative" act. "The Vatican has expressed its opposition. If a mosque is needed, very well. But not in that place." 4 He commented further: "The Holy Father has a position of strong solidarity with the Christians of Nazareth and with the Christians of the Holy Land. He would like to see them duly protected in their rights and in their dignity." 5
bulletIn 1999-NOV, Bishop Joseph Fiorenza, president of the U.S. National Conference of Catholic Bishops, protested the decision by the Israeli government to allow the mosque to be built. He wrote that the Christians in Nazareth are "fearful that the building of the mosque will only worsen their already insecure place in the community.
bulletIn 1999-NOV, the leaders of the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Armenian Churches in the Holy Land and the Franciscan ''Custos of the Holy Land,'' released a declaration that stated (in part) that ''all Sanctuaries of the Holy Land will be closed on 22 and 23 November 1999." They felt that the Israeli decision was ''clear discrimination against the Christian community in Galilee.'' Suleiman Abu Ahmed, a local Muslim leader, commented: ''I can't believe what I am hearing. I thought that religious people were supposed to be more forgiving.
bulletOn 1999-NOV-8, the mosque's cornerstone was scheduled to be laid. This was postponed until NOV-24.

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Author's note:

As the millennium ends, Nazareth has two major churches operated by different faith groups: Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox. Each claims to know the true location of the Annunciation. We hope that in the future, people might view the proximity of the Muslim mosque, Roman Catholic basilica and Eastern Orthodox church as symbols of cooperation among the three of the world's largest monotheistic faith groups. But, for now, this marvelous opportunity to demonstrate religious tolerance remains unrealized. 

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References:

  1. Various news items from Reuters Group PLC on 1999-NOV-3, The Boston Globe, on 1999-NOV-5, Page A02 and Religion Today for 1999-NOV-24. 
  2. Tom Harpur, "Holy Land lockout a scandalous affair: Churches close doors to protest mosque being built in Nazareth," The Toronto Star, 1999-NOV-28, Page E7
  3. "Christian worship church guide: Nazareth at:" http://www.jesus2000.com/nazareth/nchurches.htm
  4. "Vatican critical of plans for Nazareth mosque," Israel Wire, 1999-OCT-5, at: http://www.israelwire.com/New/991005/9910056.html
  5. "Vatican says Nazareth mosque plans 'provocative' " CNN, at: http://www.cnn.com/WORLD/meast/9910/04/ 

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Copyright 1999 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 1999-DEC-02
Latest update: 1999-DEC-02
Author: B.A. Robinson

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