Church closure highlights millennial tensions in Holy Land

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The Independent Online

Nazareth, Israel: Church doors were slammed shut in the Holy Land today, climaxing a dispute that has poisoned relations between Christians and Muslims, with Israel caught in the middle.

Nazareth, Israel: Church doors were slammed shut in the Holy Land today, climaxing a dispute that has poisoned relations between Christians and Muslims, with Israel caught in the middle.

By closing the churches for two days on the eve of the new millennium, Christians hope to draw the world's attention to what they say are growing threats to their shrines.

The protest may help spoil Israel's millennium pitch that Christians, Muslims and Jews live in harmony here, although it has not deterred Pope John Paul II from a Holy Land visit in March.

A group of pilgrims from Kurla, in India languished outside the shuttered gates of the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, the town of Jesus' boyhood, and the focus of the dispute. One woman in a sari pressed her forehead against the shutters and prayed another wept.

"The group has come from far away to see the church," said John Arinbur. "The church is wrong in doing this."

The conflict in Nazareth began two years ago, ostensibly over real estate - a half-acre (.2 hectares) plot outside the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, the town of Jesus' boyhood.

Christians wanted to build a plaza for millennium visitors, Muslims a mosque. Israel stepped in, sanctioning a mosque on one-third of the land and a plaza on the remainder.

Nazareth's Christian mayor reluctantly accepted the compromise to avoid sectarian strife, but was overruled by senior clerics, including those in the Vatican who ordered churches closed to protest Tuesday's laying of a cornerstone for the new mosque.

On Monday, Muslims prayed in a corner of the lot designated for the mosque. After prayers were over, bulldozers cleared land for the new plaza.

Pilgrims visiting Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulcher, believed by many to believe the spot of Jesus' crucifixion, were forced to confine their visits to a small corner of the church controlled by Ethiopian Christians, who were not observing the strike. The main gate was closed.

A priest leading a Polish group on a tour of the Sepulcher said he supported the strike, and said his group was skipping a stop at the Dome of the Rock, a holy Muslim site in Jerusalem, as a protest.

"It's religious discrimination," said Roman Wortoles. "In Nazareth, there are a lot of mosques."

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat also got involved Friday, trying to soften the conflict, but his appeals went unheeded.

Officials in the Roman Catholic Church said they could not meet a request by Arafat to exempt churches in Palestinian areas, particularly the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, from closure.

A group of tourists stood outside the locked small iron doors of the believed site of Jesus' birth, praying quietly.

Leaders of the Islamic movement in Nazareth turned down an appeal by pro-Arafat Muslim clerics to postpone the laying of the cornerstone to avoid friction.

A statement cooperate with this wise initiative" of the Muslim clerics.

The churches want "to continue the constructive and sincere dialogue to stabilize the situation," according to the release.

Israel became suspicious of Arafat's attempts at mediation, apparently fearing he was trying to undercut Israeli sovereignty.

Israeli police minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, who had negotiated the mosque compromise, pointedly told Arafat on Sunday to stay out of the argument.

Many Christians in Nazareth feel the Israeli government caved in to the Muslims' demands because they have more votes. Of about 1 million Arabs in Israel, only about 100,000 are Christians.

Ben-Ami went out of his way to reassure the Christians that he would safeguard their interests. He said he would set up a police station in the plaza to ensure public safety.

The leader of the Islamic movement in Nazareth, Salman Abu Ahmed, said he was surprised by the opposition to the mosque and that he wanted to live in peace with his Christian neighbors, who make up about 40 percent of Nazareth's 60,000 residents.

However, the mosque campaign was highly political from the start and was widely credited with giving the Islamic movement a majority in the city council for the first time. In last year's elections, Abu Ahmed appealed to Muslim pride in a town that had been dominated by the Christian minority in the past.

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