Nazareth Journal

Mosque "Compromise" Leaves Unanswered Questions

by Drew Christiansen,S.J.

It is a commonplace that the Middle East remains a region of Byzantine complexity. That is nowhere more so than in Israel. This fall's crisis over the proposed construction of a mosque in Nazareth on property adjacent to the Basilica of the Annunciation, however, is more than one more illustration of how complex political and interreligious relations can be in the Holy Land. It is a mystery which raises many worrisome questions.

A Muslim-Christian or an Israeli-Christian Problem?

Some weeks ago I puzzled over a question put to me by a former eastern European diplomat who asked, "What is the interest of Nazaret Ilit in the mosque?" Nazaret Ilit, or Upper Nazareth, is a Jewish town erected in recent years on the mountaintops overlooking Arab Nazareth which lies midway on the slopes. I had no answer for the ambassador. One must always ask he reminded me, "Cui bono?" "Whose interest is served?"

At the time, I thought his question odd. It did not strike me as a fruitful line of inquiry, but tucked it away in memory. The Nazareth controversy seemed simply an ugly dispute between Islamic militants and local Christians which Israeli politicians had made worse in pursuit of their own partisan interests. But then again the Middle East always turns out to be more complicated than one expects.

Dividing Muslims from Christians

Two years ago former Jerusalem Post editor David Bar Ilan, then spokesman for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, released a report prepared for the Prime Minister's Office--a plain example of anti-Palestinian propaganda--alleging Palestinian Authority coordination of Muslim persecution of the Christian minority. Christian leaders refuted the allegations, but for the first time they did so with nuance.

Latin (Roman Catholic) Patriarch Michel Sabbah denied that there was any coordinated campaign against Christians, but admitted there were individual acts of prejudice and discrimination, sometimes by low-level Palestinian officials. He went on to refute the allegation that the Palestinian Authority was behind these isolated acts, and protested that the PA had proved itself concerned and helpful to the Christian community. His view fits the facts as I have been able to find them.

Until that point two years ago, it was customary for Palestinian Christians to deny any division between themselves and their Muslim brothers. Christians and Muslims held together as members of one Arab family, That was no where more true than in Nazareth where a Muslim-Christian coalition had governed the city for many years. Some Israeli authorities, like David bar Ilan looked suspiciously on this ethnic loyalty, from time to time denouncing Palestinian-born church leaders, like Patriarch Sabbah, as being spokespersons for the Palestinian Authority.

About the same time that Mr. Bar Ilan claimed the P.A. was behind Muslim persecution of Christians in the Territories, tensions arose between Muslims and Christians in Nazareth. Members of the small Islamic Movement raised a tent of protest on property near the Basilica of the Annunciation demanding the construction of a mosque. The Nazareth municipality, with encouragement from the Israeli government in a program named Nazareth 2000, had previously designated the site for the construction of a plaza to accommodate pilgrim caravans expected for the Great Jubilee in 2000.

The following spring when I visited the Holy Land with questions about the Nazareth problem, to my surprise I discovered tensions between Muslims and Christians in many places in both Israel and the Palestinian Territories. The new Maronite bishop of Haifa and the Holy Land, Paul Sayah, disclosed that there were small conflicts in at least a half dozen places, including an occupation of the House of Simon the Tanner in Akko, a site revered as the place where Peter was lodging when he was called to visit the Roman Centurion Cornelius (Acts 10:7), an event leading to the inclusion of gentiles in the early Church.

That Holy Week as I sat in the office of Uri Mor, the head of the Department of Christian Community Affairs in the Ministry of Religion, a call came reporting a court ruling against the Islamist protest in Akko. Mr. Mor, and later Ariel Kennet in the Foreign Ministry's Office of Interreligious Affairs, professed their conviction that the controversy in Nazareth would be settled in similar fashion by court decision.

Indeed, it was the Israeli government that brought the issue of the ownership of the Nazareth land to court. Was it municipal or state land as the government had presumed, or did it belong to the Islamic Trust or 'Waqf' as the protestors claimed? A court decision, it would turn out, would not settle the question.

Israeli governments have sometimes even defied the High Court. In a celebrated case, the High Court has repeatedly instructed the government to return Christian villagers to their homes in northern Galilee, but successive governments have refused to do so. Likewise, in Israel, ministries sometimes do not work in coordination. "Everyone," as one official once told me, "thinks he is prime minister." That was especially true in Netanyahu's unruly coalition. Other officials would have other policies to pursue which did not fit with letting the Nazareth case be decided by a court ruling.

Some days later after my meetings with Mr. Mor and Mr. Kenet, on Orthodox Easter Sunday, I was traveling with a friend to Jifna, a village on the West Bank near Bir Zeit. Our Christian driver reported with sadness and alarm that extremists had harassed Christians in a number of north Jerusalem neighborhoods the night before.

Arriving in Jifna, we heard more stories of how teenagers from a nearby refugee camp had vandalized the Orthodox church, played loud music on their boom boxes during Holy Week services, and abused worshipers en route to and from church. Fortunately, however, when their actions were reported to local police, the PA governor of Ramallah came himself to the church, investigated, and arrested the 'Shebab' (young men) involved.

Troubling Questions

Despite the settlement in Akko and the arrests in Jifna, questions raced in my mind. If there is such widespread pressure on the Christian community, where does it come from?, I wondered The offenders were a minority on the fringes of Arab and Muslim society. In Jifna, they were refugee children. In Nazareth, they were known, longtime troublemakers. Some people speculated that the militants were supported by foreign sources in Iran, Saudi Arabia or Sudan.

But why, then, when David Bar Ilan alleged Palestinian persecution of Christians, was there so much anti-Christian activity in Israel proper? In Nazareth, moreover, where demonstrations had gone on for six months, the puzzle was why the usually decisive Israeli government allowed a protest to persist for so long even when it was to be adjudicated in court. To what end?

Violence, Inaction and Decision

The occupation in Nazareth continued for another year. With the Israeli electoral campaign last winter and spring, the crisis intensified. Ministers from three right-wing Israeli parties, Likud, Shas and Agudat Israel, all members of Prime Minister Netanyahu's coalition, canvassed for Arab votes by promising to intervene in the Nazareth dispute in favor of the Islamic Movement. The temptation was obvious. Arabs amount to a fifth of Israel's population. Eighty-five per cent are Muslim; fifteen per cent, Christian. Seventy thousand blank Arab votes in the previous prime ministerial election had permitted Netanyahu his exceedingly narrow victory over Shimon Peres. Muslim votes could serve the short-term political interests of the coalition members.

Nazareth reaped the bitter fruit of this political meddling at Easter this year. Islamic militants attacked Christians leaving Holy Saturday services. Three days of inter-group violence followed with lootings, burnings and beatings by both sides. Through it all, the Israeli police did what they would do in no other city of Israel, they stood aside. Only when church leaders threatened to close all the churches in the country in protest did police intervene to curb the violence.

Later in the spring, in keeping with election promises an interministerial committee appointed by the Netanyahu government, undeterred by the Easter violence and precinding from the ongoing judicial process, decided that the Islamic Movement could erect a shrine, though not a mosque, on one quarter (500 square meters) of the disputed plot. The remainder of the ground would be utilized for a public square as proposed by Nazareth 2000.

The "compromise" was accepted by Nazareth's Christian mayor Ramiz Jeraisy in the interest of peace in the municipality. Jeraisy himself has twice been beaten by the militants, most recently this past October. The protestors refused the government's offer. Church leaders, wrongly as it turned out, assumed a new government would turn its back on the decision of the previous government. Then, in October, an Israeli District Court decided against the protestors contention that the disputed land belonged to the Waqf, and declared it state land.

To the dismay of the churches and in the face of the court decision, however, the new government of Ehud Barak announced a new and more disturbing "compromise". It would permit the construction of a mosque on an even larger site. The site, however, would take only four hundred fifty square meters from the proposed square and two hundred and fifty square meters coming from the purchase of neighboring private property.

The government tried to assuage Christian fears of a Jewish-Muslim alliance by announcing that the total plan called for establishing a police station on part of the site, and giving assurances that the entrance of the mosque would be constructed so as not to conflict with the movement of pilgrims in the square and to the Basilica.

The Islamic Movement, however, would not allow the issue to rest. According to the Israeli daily Haaretz, spokesman Salman Abu Ahmed gloated that the Israeli government would pay for the construction of the mosque. Official response by the Israeli government was ambiguous. Interior Minister Shlomo Ben Ami replied,"that only a written agreement on the matter would be binding." In fact as administrator of the Islamic Waqf or Trust, the government serves as intermediary in payment of construction costs for all mosques in Israel. None the less, Ben Ami's replies to journalists' inquiries left the degree of government cooperation with the Islamic Movement muddled in a way sure to spur further questions.

Insensitivity to Christian Concerns

According to Dr. Wadie Abunassar, spokesman for the Assembly of Catholic Bishops, Israeli government ministers failed to consult Christian church leaders, neglected to respond to their letters and requests for meetings, and informed them of the decision only the day before it was made public. They also failed to take into account the promise of former Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon who had pledged at a meeting at the Vatican that Israel would not countenance the construction of a mosque on the disputed site.

Even Mr. Mor, the government's own expert on Christian affairs, only learned of the decision while he was traveling in Germany, and raced home to instruct an inexperienced government of the troubles its decision would unleash. Minister Haim Ramon, a member of the interministerial commission which approved the "compromise", told visiting U.S. bishops that the commission presumed Christian interests were represented by the nominally Christian Mayor Jeraisy.

The goverment's decision signed by five ministers appears set. At the eleventh hour, responding to a government ultimatum, the Islamic militants folded their protest tent and accepted the government "compromise", opening the way for the cornerstone to be laid for the mosque November 23.

In a November 10 meeting with the U.S. bishops, Minister Ramon, who is minister without portfolio in the prime minister's office and minister for Jerusalem, characterized the "compromise" as a "bad, but clever" decision. A number of Israeli government officials, stung by international criticism, also acknowledge the unsatisfactory nature of the decision, granting that it may appear "unfair" from the Christian point of view, but that the churches must reconcile themselves to political reality.

One senior Israeli official added that, after centuries as a minority, Jews, now a majority in Israel, had much to learn about how to exercise their responsibilities to other religious minorities with suitable sensitivity.

Church Response

Church response has been strong. The Greek Orthodox, Armenian and Latin Patriarchs, together with the Franciscan Custos (Guardian) of the Holy Land who is responsible for most of the Christian shrines, announced that all the Christian sanctuaries would be closed November 22 and 23 in protest of the government decision. While the cornerstone for the mosque was laid November 23, in a concession to the Jubilee observance and the anticipated visit of Pope John Paul II next spring, construction of the mosque will not begin until 2001.

Though the Vatican has announced that the Holy Father's pilgrimage to the Holy Land will take place in late March, 2000, Vatican officials have repeatedly said that the Nazareth dispute might well impede his visit.

The United States church has been vigorous in its support of Nazareth's Christians and the local church in the Holy Land. Writing to President Clinton as he left to meet with Prime Minister Barak and President Arafat in Oslo, NCCB/USCC president Bishop Joseph Fiorenza declared that Israeli action in question the Israeli government's ability to be steward of the holy places and protector of minority religious rights.

Bishop Fiorenza also warned that implementation of the Israeli government decision would spur Christian emigration from Israel. Addressing the annual U.S. bishops' conference meeting November 15, Bishop John Glynn of the Military Archdiocese, who had just returned from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, reported that he and other bishops had spoken to a number of young Israeli Christian Arabs who said "they had their bags packed" unless Israeli policy changed.

Two questions arise for American observers: First, why are the Israeli Arab Christians, and the Holy See, so concerned about the construction of a mosque in Nazareth? Second, why has the Israeli government involved itself so deeply in an unavoidably neuralgic issue?

The Fears of Israeli Christians

The answer to the first question is more or less straightforward. The issue is not the construction of a mosque. That is a mere pretext. The Christians are a minority within a minority. All groups in this troubled region are sensitive. But as a small minority Christians are inevitably especially sensitive to any policy, which affects them. In this case, since the government has given into demands of a violent faction where Christian interests are involved, they feel especially vulnerable. They also feel mislead by a series of unrealized government promises.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, moreover, fundamentalists often seize or occupy land near churches in efforts intimidate and harass local Christians. For example, I remember being shown some years ago mosques erected by the Islamic Brotherhood near the entrance to the Catholic churches in a neighboring Arab country. The occupation of the particular site in Nazareth appears to have been intended as just such a provocation. In the terms of the history of religious relations in the region, the subtext of intimidation in the protestors' demands was quite clear to Israeli Christians.

The Israeli government tacitly acknowledges this by requiring that the mosque be built in such a way that Christian pilgrims and Muslim worshipers will not directly in the square, and by promising to build a police station on the site to prevent further harassment.

There is good reason, however, to believe that the protestors' real intention may have been political, namely, to use religion as a wedge issue to gain electoral support in Nazareth. (The larger political implications I discuss below.) All the same, the choice of issue was bound to be seen by outsiders as a religious one. Locals may have known better, but it was also a demand calculated to mobilize people on religious grounds, and to encourage self-censorship on the part of potential critics. Furthermore, one obvious impact of the protest was to obstruct preparations for the Great Jubilee and the visit of the Holy Father to Nazareth, events already publicly opposed by some in Israel.

Above all the context of the protest was a violent one. In a country where land seizures are highly-charged political acts, the occupation of the vacant municipal property was itself an act of violence which escalated into attacks against Christians last Easter and in other episodes since. What was unusual in Nazareth was the lack of government action against the occupiers and street thugs.

At the beginning at least, the protestors were a fringe group of known troublemakers. Action against them would have ordinarily been quite feasible. Why did the police not move against them? In retrospect, the lack of police action first against the land seizure and later against the physical attacks on Christians and Christian businesses seem to fall into a pattern of deliberate inaction. Why? What was to be gained by giving the radicals their way? And why did the secular-led Barak government offer the Islamists more than the government of Mr. Netanyahu with its numerous right-wing religious allies?

Cui Bono?: Israeli Interests

A number of hypotheses present themselves. The most apparent reason is the desire for electoral support. The Netanyahu government gave its initial decision following the elections in which both Likud and its coalition partners campaigned among Arabs on the basis of support for the mosque. Perplexingly, they delivered on their promise after losing the election and the Arab vote.

The greater surprise was that the Labor/Israeli One coalition, which had taken the majority of Arab votes, delivered so early in its term an even richer reward to the protestors. Why did both parties feel the need to conclude a deal with the Islamic Movement? Why keep this promise when electoral promises to Arabs are so often forgotten? Did the two parties share a common policy?

For many Israeli Arabs, both Muslims and Christians, there is another reason. The Nazareth mosque, they tell me, has allowed Israel for the first time to divide the historically united population of Israel's largest Arab city. Moreover, the struggle over the mosque has left the city without a functioning government. The mayor and his Muslim and Christian allies in the Hadash party are in a deadlocked with an Islamic Movement majority of one in the city council. Until now, the national government has not intervened, as it may, to supply a government for the city.

Enter Nazaret Ilit--just as the retired ambassador had suggested. One possible solution to Nazareth's dysfunctional government, both Israeli Jews and Christians have told me, is for the national government to join Nazareth and Nazaret Ilit into one city, governed by a Jewish and Islamic Movement alliance. Surely, an alliance with the Islamic Movement, like early Israeli support for Hamas, as one Israeli diplomat worried, could turn sour in the future. Meanwhile, control over the city would have been secured, and an important center of Arab and Christian action will have been marginalized.

Muslim leaders seem to recognize the potential for division between Christians and Muslims inherent in the scenario as it has played out so far. Asking for a delay in the laying of the mosque's cornerstone, the Islamic Supreme Committee in Jerusalem, for example, reminded its co-religionists that "The national bond that is between Muslims and Christians in Nazareth and all through Palestine has been established since Khalif Omar's era [and] has survived to this day." Accordingly the Council prays that God "will spare us strife and dispute among our people. . ."Whether or not there has been a conscious effort to divide Israeli Arabs, as the Council purports, one effect of government intervention has certainly been to do just that.

Finally, Israeli analysts, both Arabs and Jews, told me on a recent visit, Israeli domination of Nazareth, with or without the Nazareth Ilit scenario, signals a much bigger message--on Jerusalem. It gives notice to the Holy See and to Christians and Muslims worldwide that come what may Israel has the means and the will to maintain its unilateral control over Jerusalem in the face of international pressure to legitimate the city's status as the common religious heritage of humanity as the Vatican has sought. Likewise, it serves to warn Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, who opposed the protestors' demands, that Arab disunity can be manipulated to thwart Palestinian's aspiration to make Jerusalem capital of a new Palestinian state.

Rebuilding Trust

The trauma of the Nazareth dispute goes deep and it will be long-lasting. The Christians in Galilee feel betrayed by the Israeli government. They believe they have been made expendable in the interest of an alliance between the government and opportunistic, violence-prone faction presenting itself as radical Islamists.

Israel's Christians fear repeat violence and further police indifference. They wonder whether a precedent has been set for rewarding violence. They worry about what seems to be an unfolding pattern of dismissal of Christian concerns followed by two successive governments.

Rebuilding Arab Christian confidence in Israel will be a difficult business. It will not take place without serious and diligent confidence-building measures on the part of the Israeli government. Strong interventions by U.S. church leaders, like Bishop Fiorenza and Boston's Bernard Cardinal Law, who led a pilgrimage to Israel in late October, have resulted in private apologies for a bad decision. But more than private apologies will be necessary to re-build the trust of Israel's Christians in their political authorities.

The Barak government needs to engage the Christian community directly to learn what both ordinary Arab Christian Israelis and church leaders feel would assure them that they are not expendable whether for short term electoral interests or long term, strategic ones. After the last two years, statements and agreements will not be enough. Christians in Israel and abroad will have to see deeds.

It goes without saying that reliable policing is a function to be expected of any government, and it must be at the top of the agenda in re-building trust in the authorities. There is also a long list of outstanding issues, beginning with the court-mandated return of villagers to their homes in northern Israel, on which the government could act. Freedom of movement to and from Jerusalem for church officials and staff, as well as ordinary Christian pilgrims, from the West Bank has long been a matter of contention and is just one of several other steps which could be explored.

Church leaders in the Holy Land have shown themselves strong and determined in defense of "the mother Church", but as a small church, they need strong expressions of solidarity from abroad.

After their own internal political needs, Israeli politicians look most assiduously to American public opinion. Securing a future for Christians in Israel will depend in no small measure on U.S. Catholics and Christians of other denominations voicing their objection to the seemingly feckless policy of intimidation of Nazareth's Christians in communications to the Israeli government as well as to members of the U.S. Congress and officials of the Administration.

Drew Christiansen,S.J. is a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center and counselor on international affairs to the U.S. bishops. This analysis is his own and does not represent the view of the United States Catholic Conference.

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An Article by H.E. Russell Kendall on the Importance of the Work of the Order in the Holy Land
Background on the Crisis in Nazareth
Study of the Situation in the Bethlehem Area
Investiture Speech (1999) by Bro. David Carroll, FSC, KCHS
Saints and Beati Proper to the Order
Various Insignia of the Order
History of the Order
Toronto Lieutenancy Main Page