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Drew ChristiansenFebruary 12, 2000

The front-page photos were an editor's delight. In one, a man kissed the locked doors of the Holy Sepulchre. In another, a pilgrim knelt in prayer before them. In a third, an Austrian nun, excluded from the Basilica of the Nativity, wept in Bethlehem's Manger Square as Palestinian police looked on. These were bold, emotional photos, just made for front-page display.

For church leaders in the Holy Land, however, this was precisely the kind of publicity they feared. By themselves, the photos failed to communicate their protest over the Israeli government's decision favoring the construction of a mosque on land adjacent to the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth. Instead, the photos implicitly made the church leaders themselves the villains for closing 35 of Christianity's holiest shrines to pilgrims who had traveled hundreds, if not thousands of miles and spent thousands of dollars to come and pray there.

The full story, of course, is more complex. Ordinarily the church leaders would not even have thought of closing the shrines. That they did so was a sign of desperation. They found themselves with no other means to draw attention to what they regarded as an exceptionally grave situation.

A Puzzling Question

Some weeks ago, as I prepared to visit Israel, I puzzled over a question put to me by a former eastern European diplomat, who asked, "What is the interest of Nazaret Ilit in the mosque?" Nazaret Ilit, or Upper Nazareth, is a Jewish town erected in recent years on the mountaintops overlooking Arab Nazareth, which lies midway on the slopes. I had no answer for the ambassador. One must always ask, he reminded me, "Cui bono?" ("Whose interest is served?").

At the time I thought his question odd. It did not strike me as a fruitful line of inquiry, but all the same I tucked it away in memory for future reference. The Nazareth controversy seemed simply an ugly dispute between Islamic militants and local Christians, which Israeli politicians had made worse in pursuit of their own partisan electoral interests. But then again, the Middle East always turns out to be more complicated than one expects.

Dividing Muslims From Christians

Two years ago the former editor of The Jerusalem Post, David Bar Ilan, then spokesman for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, released a report prepared for the prime minister's office--a plain example of anti-Palestinian propaganda--alleging Palestinian Authority coordination of Muslim persecution of the Christian minority. Christian leaders refuted the allegations, but for the first time they did so with nuance, admitting the existence of some problems.

The Latin (that is, Roman Catholic) patriarch, Michel Sabbah, denied that there was any coordinated campaign against Christians but admitted there were individual acts of prejudice and discrimination, sometimes by low-level Palestinian officials. The patriarch refuted the allegation that the Palestinian Authority was behind these isolated acts, and protested that the P.A. had proved itself concerned and helpful to the Christian community. His view fits the facts as I have been able to learn them.

Until that point two years ago, it was customary for Palestinian Christians to deny any division between themselves and their Muslim brothers. Christians and Muslims held together as members of one Arab family. That was nowhere more true than in Nazareth, where a Muslim-Christian coalition had governed the city for many years. Some Israeli authorities, like David Bar Ilan, looked suspiciously on Arab ethnic loyalty, from time to time denouncing Palestinian-born church leaders like Patriarch Sabbah as being spokespersons for the Palestinian Authority.

About the same time that Mr. Bar Ilan claimed the P.A. was behind Muslim persecution of Christians in the Israeli-occupied territories of the West Bank, tensions arose between Muslims and Christians in Nazareth. Members of the small Islamic Movement raised a tent of protest on property near the Basilica of the Annunciation demanding the construction of a mosque. The Nazareth municipality, with encouragement from the Israeli government in a program named Nazareth 2000, had previously designated the site for the construction of a plaza to accommodate pilgrim caravans expected for the Great Jubilee in 2000.

The following spring, when I visited the Holy Land with questions about the Nazareth problem, to my surprise I discovered tensions between Muslims and Christians in many places in both Israel and the Palestinian Territories. The new Maronite bishop of Haifa and the Holy Land, Paul Sayah, told me that there were small conflicts in at least half a dozen places in Israel itself. These included an occupation of the House of Simon the Tanner in Akko, a site revered as the place where Peter was lodging when he was called to visit the Roman centurion Cornelius (Acts 10:7), an event leading to the inclusion of gentiles in the early church.

That Holy Week, as I sat in the office of Uri Mor, the head of the Department of Christian Community Affairs in the Israeli Ministry of Religion, a call came reporting a court ruling against the Islamist protest in Akko. Mr. Mor, and later Ariel Kennet in the Foreign Ministry's Office of Inter-Religious Affairs, professed their conviction that the controversy in Nazareth would be settled in similar fashion by court decision.

Indeed, it was the Israeli government that brought the issue of the ownership of the Nazareth land to court. The protesters in Nazareth had based their demands on the allegation that the land had to belong to the "Waqf," or Islamic Religious Trust, because a deserted shrine to the 16th-century Muslim scholar Shahab al Din, nephew of the conqueror Salah al Din, stood in the corner of the property. The city regarded it as state land, where a school had only recently been demolished to make way for the piazza.

The government asked the court to decide. Was the property municipal or state land as the government had presumed, or did it belong to the Islamic Trust as the protesters claimed? As it turned out, a court decision would not settle the question.

Israeli governments have sometimes defied the High Court. In a celebrated case, the High Court has repeatedly instructed the government to return Christian villagers to their homes in northern Galilee, but successive governments have refused to do so.

Likewise, in Israel ministries sometimes do not work in coordination. "Everyone," as one official once told me, "thinks he is prime minister." That was especially true in Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's unruly coalition. Other officials would have other policies to pursue that did not fit with letting the Nazareth case be decided by a court ruling.

Some days later, after my meetings with Mr. Mor and Mr. Kenet, I was traveling with a friend on Orthodox Easter Sunday to Jifna, a village on the West Bank near Bir Zeit. Our Christian driver reported with sadness and alarm that extremists had harassed Christians in a number of north Jerusalem neighborhoods the night before.

Arriving in Jifna, we heard more stories of how teenagers from a nearby refugee camp had vandalized the Orthodox church, played loud music on their boom boxes during Holy Week services and abused worshipers en route to and from church. Fortunately, however, when their actions were reported to local police, the P.A. governor of Ramallah came himself to the church, investigated and arrested the "Shebab" (young men) involved.

Troubling Questions

Despite the settlement in Akko and the arrests in Jifna, questions raced in my mind. "If there is such widespread pressure on the Christian community, where does it come from?" I wondered. The offenders were a minority on the fringes of Arab and Muslim society. In Jifna, they were refugee children. In Nazareth, they were known, longtime troublemakers. Some people speculated that the militants were supported by foreign sources in Iran, Saudi Arabia or Sudan.

But why, then, when David Bar Ilan alleged Palestinian persecution of Christians, was there so much anti-Christian activity in Israel proper? In Nazareth, moreover, where demonstrations had gone on for six months, the puzzle was why the usually decisive Israeli government allowed a protest to persist for so long even when it was to be adjudicated in court. To what end?

Violence, Inaction and Decision

The occupation in Nazareth continued for another year. With the Israeli electoral campaign last winter and spring, the crisis intensified. Ministers from three right-wing Israeli parties, Likud, Shas and Agudat Israel, all members of Prime Minister Netanyahu's coalition, canvassed for Arab votes by promising to intervene in the Nazareth dispute in favor of the Islamic Movement.

The temptation was obvious. Arabs amount to a fifth of Israel's population. Of these, 85 percent are Muslim; 15 percent, Christian. Seventy thousand blank Arab ballots in the previous prime ministerial election had permitted Netanyahu his exceedingly narrow victory over Shimon Peres. Muslim votes could serve the short-term political interests of the coalition members.

Nazareth reaped the bitter fruit of this political meddling at Easter last year. Islamic militants attacked Christians leaving Holy Saturday services. Three days of inter-group violence followed with vandalism, looting and beatings by both sides. Through it all, the Israeli police did what they would do in no other city of Israel. they stood aside. Only when church leaders threatened to close all the churches in the country in protest did police intervene to curb the violence.

Later in the spring, in keeping with election promises, an inter-ministerial committee appointed by the Netanyahu government decided that the Islamic Movement could erect a shrine, though not a mosque, on one quarter (500 square meters) of the disputed plot. The remainder of the ground would be utilized for a public square, as proposed by Nazareth 2000. Neither the Easter violence nor the ongoing judicial process seemed to inspire hesitation in the commission.

Nazareth's Christian mayor, Ramiz Jeraisy, accepted the "compromise" in the interest of peace for the municipality. (Jeraisy himself has been beaten twice by the militants.) The protesters refused the government's offer. Church leaders assumed, wrongly as it turned out, that a new government would turn its back on the decision of the previous government. Then, in October, an Israeli district court decided against the protesters' contention that the disputed land belonged to the Waqf and declared it state land.

To the dismay of the churches and in the face of the court decision, however, the new government of Ehud Barak announced a new and more disturbing "compromise." It would permit the construction of a mosque, not just a shrine, on an even larger site. The site, however, would take only 450 square meters from the proposed square and 250 square meters coming from the purchase of neighboring private property.

The government tried to assuage Christian fears of a Jewish-Muslim alliance by announcing that the total plan called for establishing a police station on part of the site. It also gave assurances that the entrance of the mosque would be constructed so as not to conflict with the movement of pilgrims in the square to and from the basilica.

The Islamic Movement, however, would not allow the issue to rest. According to the Israeli daily Haaretz, spokesman Salman Abu Ahmed gloated that the Israeli government would pay for the construction of the mosque. Official response by the Israeli government was ambiguous. Interior Minister Shlomo Ben Ami replied, "that only a written agreement on the matter would be binding." In fact as administrator of the Islamic Waqf or Trust, the government serves as intermediary in payment of construction costs for all mosques in Israel. Nonetheless, Ben Ami's replies to journalists' inquiries left the degree of government cooperation with the Islamic Movement muddled in a way sure to spur further questions.

Insensitivity to Christian Concerns

According to Dr. Wadie Abunassar, spokesman for the Assembly of Catholic Bishops, Israeli government ministers failed to consult Christian church leaders, making a sham of the proposition that the mosque decision was a "compromise." The ministers neglected to respond to letters and requests for meetings from church leaders. The government's only communication was to inform the patriarchs and bishops of the decision on the eve of making their decision public. They also failed to take into account the promise of former Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon, who had pledged at a meeting at the Vatican that Israel would not countenance the construction of a mosque on the disputed site.

Even Mr. Mor, the government's own expert on Christian affairs, only learned of the decision while he was traveling in Germany, and raced home to instruct an inexperienced government of the troubles its decision would unleash. Minister Haim Ramon, a member of the inter-ministerial commission that approved the "compromise," told visiting U.S. bishops that the commission presumed Christian interests were represented by Mayor Jeraisy, who is nominally Christian.

Implementation of the government's decision, signed by five ministers, has begun. At the 11th hour, responding to a government ultimatum, the Islamic militants folded their protest tent and accepted the government "compromise." On Nov. 23 they laid the cornerstone for the mosque. In a concession to the jubilee observance and the anticipated visit of Pope John Paul II this spring, construction of the mosque will not begin until 2001.

In a meeting of Nov. 10 with the U.S. bishops, Minister Ramon, who is minister without portfolio in the prime minister's office and minister for Jerusalem, characterized the "compromise" as a "bad, but clever" decision. A number of Israeli government officials, stung by international criticism, also acknowledge the unsatisfactory nature of the decision, granting that it may appear "unfair" from the Christian point of view, but say that the churches must reconcile themselves to political reality.

One senior Israeli official added that, after centuries as a minority, Jews, now a majority in Israel, have much to learn about how to exercise their responsibilities to other religious minorities with suitable sensitivity.

Church Response

Church response has been strong. The Greek Orthodox, Armenian and Latin Patriarchs, together with the Franciscan Custos (Guardian) of the Holy Land who is responsible for most of the Christian shrines, followed through on their threat to close the Christian sanctuaries on Nov. 22 and 23 in protest of the government decision. Leaders of the Syrian, Armenian, Coptic and Anglican churches joined them in their protest.

Though the Vatican has announced that the pope's pilgrimage to the Holy Land will take place in late March 2000, Vatican officials have repeatedly said that the Nazareth dispute might well impede his visit. Commenting on the laying of the cornerstone, Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls chided the Israeli government for creating "the foundation to foment division."

The U.S. church has been as vigorous as anyone in its support of Nazareth's Christians and the local church in the Holy Land. Writing to President Clinton as he left to meet with Prime Minister Barak and President Arafat in Oslo, Bishop Joseph Fiorenza, president of the N.C.C.B./U.S.C.C., declared that Israeli action put in question the Israeli government's ability to be steward of the holy places and protector of minority religious rights.

Bishop Fiorenza also warned that implementation of the Israeli government's decision would spur Christian emigration from Israel. Bishop John Glynn of the military archdiocese, addressing the annual U.S. bishops' conference on Nov. 15 after returning from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, reported that he and other bishops had spoken to a number of young Christian Arabs there who said "they had their bags packed" with a view to emigration.

Two questions arise for American observers: First, why are the Israeli Arab Christians, and the Holy See, so concerned about the construction of a mosque in Nazareth? Second, why has the Israeli government involved itself so deeply in an unavoidably neuralgic issue?

The Fears of Israeli Christians

The answer to the first question is more or less straightforward. The issue is not the construction of a mosque. That is a mere pretext. As a minority, Christians are inevitably especially sensitive to any policy that affects them. In this case, since the government has given in to demands of a violent faction where Christian interests are involved, they feel especially vulnerable. They also feel misled by a series of unrealized government promises.

Christians in the Holy Land do not ordinarily regard the construction of a mosque as a provocation. The Mosque of Omar in Jerusalem, for example, is located very close to the Holy Sepulchre. Previously the current adherents of the two religions had lived side by side in peace. "We all used to live together here, Muslim and Christian as one," Amer Nijim, a tour agent, told The Boston Globe. "The saddest part of all of this is the deep division it has left behind."

Elsewhere in the Middle East, however, fundamentalists often seize or occupy land near churches in efforts to intimidate and harass local Christians. I remember, for example, being shown some years ago mosques erected by fundamentalists near the entrances of Catholic churches in a neighboring Arab country. The occupation of the particular site in Nazareth appears to have been intended as just such a provocation.

The Israeli government tacitly acknowledges the risk of further violence by requiring that the mosque be built in such a way that Christian pilgrims and Muslim worshipers will not directly intermingle in the square, and by promising to build a police station on the site to prevent further harassment.

There is good reason, however, to believe that the protesters' real intention may have been political rather than religious. They simply used religion as a wedge issue to gain electoral support in Nazareth. All the same, the choice of issue was bound to be seen by outsiders as a religious one. Locals may have known better, but the demand for a mosque was also calculated to mobilize people on religious grounds and to encourage self-censorship on the part of potential critics. Furthermore, the obvious impact of the protest was to obstruct preparations for the Great Jubilee and the visit of the pope to Nazareth, events already publicly opposed by some in Israel.

Above all, the context of the protest was one of violence. In a country where land seizures are highly charged political acts, the occupation of the vacant municipal property was itself an act of violence, which escalated into attacks against Christians last Easter and in other episodes since. What was unusual in Nazareth was the lack of government action against the occupiers and street thugs.

At the beginning, at least, the protesters were a fringe group of known troublemakers. Action against them would ordinarily have been quite feasible. Why did the police not move against them? In retrospect the lack of police action first against the land seizure and later against the physical attacks on Christians and Christian businesses seems to fall into a pattern of deliberate inaction. Why? What was to be gained by giving the radicals their way? And why did the secular-led Barak government offer the Islamists more than the government of Mr. Netanyahu, with its numerous right-wing religious allies?

Cui Bono? Israeli Interests

The most apparent reason for these disturbing government actions was the desire for electoral support. The Netanyahu government gave its initial decision following the elections in which both Likud and its coalition partners campaigned among Arabs on the basis of support for the mosque. Perplexingly, they delivered on their promise after losing the election and the Arab vote.

The greater surprise was that the Labor/Israeli One coalition, which had taken the majority of Arab votes, delivered so early in its term an even richer reward to the protesters. Labor's electioneering on the mosque issue had not been reported in the press. Why did both parties feel the need to conclude a deal with the Islamic Movement? Why keep this promise, when electoral promises to Arabs are so often forgotten? Did the two parties share a common policy?

For many Israeli Arabs, both Muslims and Christians, there is another reason. The issue of the Nazareth mosque has allowed Israel for the first time to divide the historically united population of Israel's largest Arab city. Patriarch Sabbah termed the government ruling an "Israeli policy of divide and rule" aimed at splitting Arab Muslims from Christians. Many Muslims seem to understand this point. The protesters' demands have been opposed, for example, by the Palestinian president, Yasser Arafat, and the Islamic Supreme Council in Jerusalem. On the eve of the cornerstone laying, moreover, the government of Saudi Arabia offered to pay for the construction of a substitute mosque anywhere else in Nazareth.

In addition, the struggle over the mosque has left the city without a functioning government. The mayor and his Muslim and Christian allies in the Hadash party are in a deadlock with an Islamic Movement majority of one in the city council. Until now, the national government has not intervened, as it may, to supply a government for the city.

Enter Nazaret Ilit--just as the retired ambassador had suggested. One solution to Nazareth's dysfunctional government, both Jewish and Arab Israelis have told me, is for the national government to join Nazareth and Nazaret Ilit into one city, governed by a Jewish and Islamic Movement alliance. Surely, an alliance with the Islamic Movement, like early Israeli support for Hamas, as one Israeli diplomat worried, could turn sour in the future. Meanwhile, control over the city would have been secured, and an important center of Arab and Christian action will have been marginalized.

Finally, Israeli analysts told me on a recent visit, Israeli domination of Nazareth, with or without the Nazaret Ilit scenario, signals a much bigger message--about Jerusalem. It gives notice to the Holy See and to Christians and Muslims worldwide that, come what may, Israel has the means and the will to maintain its unilateral control over Jerusalem. It may be a pre-emptive move in response to international pressure to legitimate Jerusalem's status as the common religious heritage of humanity, as the Vatican has sought. It also warns the Palestinian president, Yasser Arafat, that Arab disunity can also be manipulated to thwart Palestinians' aspiration to make Jerusalem the capital of a new Palestinian state.

Rebuilding Trust

The trauma of the Nazareth dispute goes deep, and it will be long-lasting. The Christians in Galilee feel betrayed by the Israeli government. They believe they have been made expendable in the interest of an alliance between the government and an opportunistic, violence-prone political faction presenting itself as radical Islamists.

Israel's Christians fear repeated violence and further police indifference. They wonder whether a precedent has been set for rewarding violence. They worry about what seems to be an unfolding pattern of dismissal of Christian concerns pursued by two successive governments.

Rebuilding Arab Christian confidence in Israel will be difficult and will not take place without serious and diligent confidence-building measures on the part of the Israeli government. Strong interventions by U.S. church leaders, like Bishop Fiorenza and Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law, who led a pilgrimage to Israel last October, have resulted in private apologies for a bad decision. But more than private apologies will be necessary to rebuild the trust of Israel's Christians.

The Barak government needs to engage the Christian community directly to learn what would assure both ordinary Arab Christian Israelis and church leaders that they are not expendable, either for short-term electoral interests or long-term strategic ones. Statements and agreements will not be enough. Christians in Israel and abroad will have to see deeds.

It goes without saying that reliable policing is a function to be expected of any government. There is also a long list of outstanding issues, beginning with the court-mandated return of Christian villagers to their homes in northern Israel, on which the government could act to re-establish the trust of the Christian community in the government.

Freedom of movement to and from Jerusalem for church officials and staff, as well as for ordinary Christian pilgrims from the West Bank, has long been a matter of contention and is just one of several other confidence-building measures that could be explored.

Christian Solidarity and Inter-religious Relations

Church leaders in the Holy Land have shown themselves strong and determined in defense of "the mother church." But as a small church, they need strong expressions of solidarity from abroad.

After their own internal political needs, Israeli politicians look most assiduously to American public opinion. Securing a future for Christians in Israel will depend in no small measure on U.S. Catholics, as well as Christians of other denominations, voicing their concern over the Israeli government's seemingly feckless policy of acquiescence in the intimidation of Nazareth's Christians.

Communications to the Israeli government as well as to members of the U.S. Congress and administration officials are needed. At the same time dialogue between returning pilgrims and knowledgeable Christians with local Jewish and Muslim groups is in order. For disagreement over the complex events in Nazareth is too easily mischaracterized as religious prejudice.

Already some officials and organizational leaders have hinted that any criticism of Israeli government policy in the Nazareth affair will be perceived ipso facto as anti-Semitic. The foreign ministry spokesman Aviv Sharon, for example, already accused the Holy See of playing "a time-honored game of pointing the finger in the wrong direction" in opposing the Israeli government's role in the crisis.

Christians should be able to defend their co-religionists against violent intimidation anywhere, including Israel, and they should be able to expect support of those who regard themselves as guardians of religious liberty. Many Jews and Muslims, in Israel and elsewhere, fully understand this.

In a mature Catholic-Jewish relationship, moreover, it should be possible to distinguish between support for Israel and criticism of Israeli government policies. Likewise, in a mature Catholic-Muslim relationship, it should be possible to distinguish between respect for Islam and criticism of militants pursuing their own ends in the name of Islam.

If Christian solidarity with the church of the Holy Land results in a new level of dialogue and a new quality of relationship with Jews and Muslims in the United States, perhaps some good may still come from the affair in Nazareth. Such progress in Catholic-Jewish and Catholic-Muslim relations, however, must never lose sight of the pain of Israel's Christians made so sorely public in the crisis over the Nazareth square.

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