Holy row as Israel turns on Vatican over mosque plan

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The Independent Online

Israel's foreign Minister, David Levy, launched a fresh attack on the Vatican yesterday as relations between the Jewish state and the Catholic church reached a new low.

Israel's foreign Minister, David Levy, launched a fresh attack on the Vatican yesterday as relations between the Jewish state and the Catholic church reached a new low.

His ire centred on the Vatican's accusation that Israel is stirring up tensions between the Muslim and Christian communities in Nazareth in the dispute over plans for a mosque next to one of Christianity's holiest shrines.

For months a row has been simmering over a plot of land beside the Basilica of the Annunciation, where thousands of Muslims triumphantly laid the cornerstone of the four-storey, 165m-high mosque on Tuesday, just yards from the spot where Christians believe the archangel Gabriel appeared to Mary. Mr Levy said yesterday that the Vatican's charges were "the opposite to the truth".

The Pope is planning to visit the Holy Land - including Nazareth - next March. And millions of Christians are expected to descend on Israel and the Palestinian Authority for the millennium year. The Vatican has been fretting over whether they will have full access to Christian sites, and was so angered by the Israeli government's decision to allow the mosque to be built that it closed churches in the Holy Land on Monday and Tuesday. It also accused Israel of "creating the basis for instigating division" in Nazareth, a divided Arab town.

"The decision of the Israeli government seems to lay the foundation for future conflicts and tensions between the two communities, Christian and Islam," said a Vatican spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls.

Mr Levy said on Israeli radio: "Our efforts were aimed at defusing the dispute and reducing the tension between the faiths, particularly in Nazareth. The act [of unveiling the cornerstone] was done by agreement."Matters have not been helped by a widely enforced crackdown by Israel on suspected apocalyptic Christian cults, which has included deporting a legitimate Irish group of Catholic pilgrims.

Crucifixes and Christmas trees will be banned from Israeli hotel lobbies during the millennium holiday season because they are offensive to Jews, Israel's chief rabbi said yesterday.

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