In a most sacred town, things start to turn ugly

Frontline: NAZARETH
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The Independent Online
THIS IS one of the world's stranger frontlines. On the low ground, you have the Muslims, staked out in a vacant lot amid the paraphernalia of protest - flags, loudspeakers, a sign calling on the world to keep its "hands off our mosque". A little higher, past the tourist boutiques crammed with cribs and rosaries, stand the Christians, custodians of a building whose ugliness in no way reflects its claim to be one of the holiest spots on earth. Islam and Christianity, traditional rivals over the centuries, are in a turf war again, separated by a few yards.

This is Nazareth, a city which is generally assumed to have been the home of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, and which ought therefore to be enjoying the peace and prosperity of a major international tourist attraction. And yet it is entering the third millennium ensnared in a conflict that last week prompted Christian leaders to announce the highly unusual decision that they will close their sanctuaries for two days later this month as a protest.

For the Western newcomer arriving with a head full of half-remembered biblical images, this place is a surprise. There is none of the shady elegance of Jerusalem, and little of its feeling of antiquity. It clatters along, a half-built Arab town, streets blocked by roadworks, pot-holes, and above all, traffic. Hammering and drilling nags away at the ears as Nazareth struggles - almost certainly in vain - to ready itself for the millennium tourist season.

Perhaps the biggest surprise, though, is the Catholic church that stands at the heart of the current dispute: the Basilica of the Annunciation, which marks the spot where Gabriel is supposed to have appeared before Mary. Far from exuding dignity or mystery, it is a stark building, begun in 1960, which has a gaudy look about it - a mixture of end-of-the-pier and bossy imperialism.

Small tides of elderly Western tourists flow in and out and gather round the hideous grotto within that marks the actual spot of Mary's home. It is the fifth church to be built on the site (the previous one was demolished in the mid-Fifties).

This month, in the neighbouring Muslim camp, a foundation stone will be laid for a mosque. The security will surely be tight; the issue has been the source of sectarian tension for months in Nazareth, whose population of 55,000 is just over half Muslim and just under half Christian. Last Easter there were riots; a few weeks ago, the mayor was attacked.

But on Friday the mood appeared calm. A small group gathered at the site of the mosque to shelter from the first thunderstorm of the season. Among them was Riad Husseini, a bearded, amiable man who clearly believes that Islam is winning this particular tiff. "There is no problem here," he said, as we gazed at the 20ft wall topped with barbed wire, separating them from the basilica. "There are mosques in Rome and London. Why can't we have one? Where's the problem?"

But there is a problem, and a big one. You only have to walk back up the hill to find it. Yards from the entrance of the basilica stood a young Palestinian Catholic priest who was only too happy to fulminate not only against the wrong-doings of the Muslims, but also of the Israeli government. To complicate the issue, it is the organs of the Jewish state that have given permission for the mosque.

"Look, this is historically a Christian town in which the Muslims are trying to stamp their identity," said the priest, who declined to be named. "The Israeli government is playing a game here, trying to set Palestinians - Christians and Muslims - against one another. They want to divide us."

To those who have observed the fortunes of the region over the past couple of thousand years, it must all sound horribly familiar.

Phil Reeves