Papal visit to Nazareth spotlights tensions

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The Independent Online

To Christian faithful the world over, the biblical town of Nazareth is a living shrine, revered as the place where a virtuous young woman named Mary learned that she would give birth to the son of God, and where that boy - Jesus - grew to charismatic manhood.

But for the people of this workaday Arab hill town, old gospel stories tend to take a back seat to economic worries, religious tensions, and quarrels with the Israeli government.

So while Pope John Paul II's brief visit here Saturday is giving rise to a certain amount of civic pride, it's also an occasion for Nazarenes to air all manner of grudges and grievances.

Sensibilities are still raw after a bitter quarrel over plans to construct a large new mosque in the shadow of the hulking, modern basilica, built over the site where Roman Catholics believe the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary with the news that she would give birth to Jesus, "the son of the highest".

John Paul's visit coincided with a Roman Catholic feast day commemorating the event, and several thousand faithful attended a celebratory papal Mass in the Basilica of the Annunciation.

"We are gathered to celebrate the great mystery accomplished here two thousand years ago," the pontiff said. "The whole church contemplates this sacred place."

Raising a din of singing, drumming and cheers, dozens of people lined the winding streets of Jesus' boyhood town to greet pope John Paul II for a visit staged among some of the heaviest security of his week-long visit to the Holy Land.

Israeli police and border guards, some in full riot gear, set up tight cordons along the short route from the pope's helipad to the basilica, one of the holiest Christian shrines. Police kept crowds well away from the papal motorcade as it passed by, lights flashing under overcast skies.

Inside the soaring basilica, the Pope leaning on his cane slowly made the sign of the cross as he moved through a throng of worshippers, flanked by black-robed priests. His hands shook as he knelt in prayer in a grotto for several moments before beginning Mass.

The tight security reflected religious tensions that have at times exploded into violence in recent months in Nazareth, where Christians are a minority.

Some green Islamic flags fluttered in the crowd outside, in contrast to the sea of yellow and white Vatican flags that fluttered from rooftops and lampposts throughout the city center.

Nazareth's Christians, who make up about 30 percent of this Arab hilltown's population said they were heartened by the papal visit.

"It's an assertion of our existence - he's coming to represent us," said Shavia Azam, a Chistian librarian from just outside Nazareth.

But not all in the welcoming crowd were Christian pilgrims.

"It's only normal that I come to greet such an international personality," said 37-year old Walid Abu Zamen, a Muslim who is unemployed.

Leaders of Nazareth's Muslim community - which accounts for more than two-thirds of the town's population of 70,000 - said they had no objection to the papal stop, but that no special concessions, such as any muting of the call to prayer, would be made.

"Just because we have a big guest, do we stop going to prayers?" said Salman Abu Ahmed, leader of the local Islamic movement. He said he would have been happy to help greet the pope, but that no one from the Israeli government or the Vatican had invited him to do so.

"We are being ignored when we should be respected," he said.

Abu Ahmed and others, though, said perceived slights by either side would not necessarily lead to trouble.

On Friday, the eve of the papal visit, about 4,000 worshippers gathered for noon prayers - the biggest of the week - at the site of the controversial planned mosque. When church bells rang out in the midst of a reading of Koranic verses, the imam simply waited for the pealing to end, then continued.

Mindful of past tensions, though, Israeli security officials privately expressed some worries over the Nazareth stop. The pope was to spend almost all his time inside the basilica, and was being brought into the city center from his helipad by the shortest possible route.

In Israel, the pope's visit to Nazareth prompted some grumbling from a few rabbis, who complained that making Jewish security officers work on Saturday was a desecration of the Sabbath, the biblically mandated day of rest.

Some local Christians said while they hoped the pope's message of religious tolerance and peaceful resolution of disputes would be heeded - but held out little hope for an improvement in their daily lot.

"We feel pressure - there is always a sense of fear," said Suher Mazawi, a Christian souvenir vendor whose shop looks out over the plaza where the mosque is to be built.

Nazareth businessman Taha Mohammed Ali, a Muslim, said he thought it was too late for reconciliation. "What happened can't be mended," he said. "It's like a piece of glass - when broken, it can't be whole again."