Column One: After 2,000 years, the churches in Jerusalem go on strike

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ALMOST 2,000 years have passed since Joseph and Mary suffered the most famous lock-out in Christian history, but the times, it seems, have come full circle. Today, it is less a question of lack of hotel space as age-old, deeply acrimonious, religious rivalry.

Christian pilgrims to Israel this month will find that they cannot enter the Basilica of the Annunciation - the church in Nazareth supposedly marking the spot where the Archangel Gabriel first told Mary to expect a child. Nor will they be able to genuflect before the place of the Crucifixion, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City. Nor can they enter other local Christian churches for a two day period.

Christian leaders in the Holy Land yesterday issued an announcement that all their sanctuaries will be closed on 22 and 23 November. The shut- down is a protest against a decision by the Israeli government to allow a mosque to be built in Nazareth, close to the Basilica of the Annunciation.

The issue has been a source of fierce contention in the town of Christ's childhood, causing riots, demonstrations, an attack on the mayor, and a threat by the Vatican to cancel a Papal visit to Israel pencilled in for next spring.

"For 2,000 years now, the City of Nazareth has been sacred to the Christian world," says the statement, signed by the patriarchs of the Greek, Armenian and Roman Catholic Churches and by the Franciscan "Custos of the Holy Land".

"Ever since the period of Ottoman rule some 500 years ago, this city has also lived in an atmosphere of peaceful co-existence between Christians and Muslims."

This arrangement in Nazareth - now an Arab city, where the Muslim population outnumbers the Christians - has been "shaken by a series of sad events", which have "unfortunately raised the level of intolerance and tension".

The main grievance is that the Muslims ("a small group of fundamentalists", says the statement) are being allowed to go ahead with the mosque despite a court ruling that the land belongs to the state.

On Monday the mosque's cornerstone is due to be laid.

The patriarchs, who say that they signed their statement with "heavy hearts", are hoping that peace will be restored by Christmas or New Year, although they do not sound particularly convinced.

"We trust that we do not need to take any further steps in the near future," their statement says.

Surely not ... they can't mean going on strike on the last Christmas of the millennium? All hell would break loose.