DAILY CATHOLIC    TUESDAY     November 30, 1999     vol. 10, no. 227

from a CATHOLIC perspective

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        ROME (FIDES/CWNews.com) The Israeli government approval for plans to build a mosque near the Annunciation Basilica in Nazareth came after sharp debate, and Prime Minister Ehud Barak is now under heavy political pressure to reverse that decision, according to a report from the Vatican's FIDES news agency.

        Christian leaders in the Holy Land and around the world have sharply criticized the Israeli decision to allow construction of a huge mosque on land that sits directly adjacent to the historic Christian basilica. The Christian leaders point out that the impulse to build a mosque came from a small, militant minority of the Muslims in the city where Jesus lived. In fact, there were apparently no plans for a mosque until Christians unveiled plans to use the same space as a plaza, to accommodate the pilgrims who were expected to visit Nazareth during the Jubilee Year.

        In reaction against those plans, a group of Islamic militants lodged the claim that the land was Muslim property, and announced that they would build a large mosque on the site. (There are already several other mosques in the city.) When passions flamed over the issue-- producing riots that marred the Easter celebration in 1999-- the Israeli government stepped in, declaring that the contested land was government property. However, after a lengthy debate, the government then approved construction of a mosque on part of that parcel of land.

        FIDES spoke to Father David Jaeger, a Franciscan friar who had recently returned to Rome from Jerusalem. A Jew who converted to Catholicism, Father Jaeger had been in the Holy Land for the past few months. He is also one of the individuals involved in the delicate negotiations that finally produced full relations between Israel and the Vatican.

        "All the top Israeli officials I have spoken to in recent months," disapprove of the decision to authorize construction of the mosque, Father Jaeger reported. He added that these officials are "charged with relations with the Christian churches by various ministries" within the government, and added that "even high-ranking security force members were all absolutely against the initiative." The Franciscan priest said that the decision was ultimately made by the National Security Minister, Shlomo Ben Ami, who is "now isolated by the rest of the cabinet, which looks at the decision with disbelief and horror."

        In the days after the Israeli government announced its controversial decision, a number of ranking police and army officers criticized Ben Ami for being "too hasty." A few generals have even handed in their resignation. Ehud Barak's cabinet is divided, and the split is now a matter of public record. Rabbi Yitzhak Cohen, the government's Religious Affairs Minister, emphatically denounced the authorization of the mosque building.

        "The decision to allow the building of the mosque," Father Jaeger said, "is bad judgement on the part of a minister who has no experience of government whatsoever. Ben Ami is in fact only a beginner in this field."

        "But there is hope," he continues, "because Prime Minister Barak obviously realizes the seriousness of the false step taken. Now he and his government should re-think the situation and take measures to annul the unhappy initiative."

        The government's decision appears to be unpopular among Israeli citizens, who see it as a needless concession to the Islamic fundamentalists who are generally regarded as implacable enemies of the Jewish people.

        Father Jaeger, for his part, believes that the Israeli government could use the occasion to build better relations with more moderate Muslims. Speaking to FIDES, he offered this advice:

        "The Israeli government could take appropriate steps in favor of the Muslim community as a whole, and not only for its fundamentalist fringes. It could, for example, return Muslim property which Israel confiscated after the 1948 war. It could restore abandoned mosques and burial grounds, and build new mosques in appropriate places-- not on the doorstep of the Basilica of the Annunciation, so dear and unique for Christians world wide, because there the Word was made flesh."

        However, in a November 26 briefing for journalists in Rome, the Israeli ambassador to the Vatican gave no evidence that his government is ready to reconsider its decision. Aharon Lopez said that the approval of mosque construction was "a compromise designed to restore harmony among the communities" in Nazareth. And he criticized Christians for their "excessive dramatization" of the problem.

        The essence of the compromise, the ambassador explained, was the decision to approve only a relatively small mosque, rather than the large edifice the Islamic group had sought to build. Rather than filling the available space, the construction project would allow some room for a plaza to accommodate Christian pilgrims, he said.

        Lopez declined to make any direct response to a November 23 statement in which the Vatican said that the Israeli decision would "foment divisions" between Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land. But he implied that critics were themselves inflaming the situation by condemning the Israeli government.

        Ambassador Lopez said that the government's decision was "not a provocation, either in substance or in spirit." He explained that approval of the mosque construction was more likely to bring harmony to Nazareth than the use of force. And he pointed out that after the decision was announced, the Islamic militants who had erected a tent in the disputed square, as a means of demonstrating their claim on the land, had now taken down that tent.

        "It is a question of compromise; that is why it is impossible to please everyone," the Israeli diplomat said. "But we hope that time will prove that this compromise was the best solution to adopt."

        Lopez said that the Israeli government is firmly committed to ensure the security of Christian pilgrims who come to the Holy Land during the Jubilee Year. He added that this determination influenced the government decision, since a compromise was deemed more likely to prevent confrontations in Nazareth.

        Lopez concluded his briefing by insisting that relations between the Holy See and Israel remained "excellent" in spite of the latest flare- up.

Articles provided through Catholic World News and Church News at Noticias Eclesiales and International Dossiers, Daily Dispatches and Features at ZENIT International News Agency. CWN, NE and ZENIT are not affiliated with the Daily CATHOLIC but provide this service via e-mail to the Daily CATHOLIC Monday through Friday.

November 30, 1999       volume 10, no. 227


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