Israel's churches closed in protest at mosque plans

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THEY STOOD in small groups yesterday, subdued and disconsolate: Christian pilgrims who had travelled from Europe and the Americas, Asia and Africa, to pay homage at the traditional site of the crucifixion and entombment of Christ, only to find the weathered wooden doors barred and bolted.

The Holy Sepulchre in the old, walled city of Jerusalem was locked in a two-day protest at Muslim plans to build a mosque next to the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth. So was every other church in the Holy Land,

Tom Crammer, 19, an Anglican from Wales, said: "What is sad is that two big faith communities cannot sort out their differences any other way."

Israeli officials, caught in the crossfire between feuding Muslims and Christians, brokered a compromise, permitting the Muslims to build a smaller mosque than planned, on land originally set aside for the millions of pilgrims expected during the year 2000.

Nazareth's Christians, who make up barely a third of the city's 200,000 residents, acquiesced, but their leaders in Israel and the Palestinian territories rejected the deal as a ransom to Islamic militants.

Wadieh Abu Nasar, a Catholic spokesman, said last night: "They rioted against our community. They provoked against our community; they incited against our community. And the Israeli government has rewarded them."

The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, now under Palestinian rule, was also closed, despite Yasser Arafat's appeal to keep it open. Mr Arafat criticised Muslim extremists for upsetting the Vatican and other churches at a time when thousands of millennium pilgrims were already streaming in.