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World - Middle East

Mosque compromise in Israel upsets Christians, Muslims

Muslims have been offered a smaller mosque than they wished; the cornerstone will be laid next month  

October 26, 1999
Web posted at: 11:20 p.m. EDT (0320 GMT)

From Jerusalem Bureau Chief Walter Rodgers

NAZARETH, Israel (CNN) -- Both Christians and Muslims voiced their displeasure Tuesday with an Israeli compromise that will allow Muslims to build a mosque -- though smaller than most Muslims wanted -- near a sacred Christian site in northern Israel.

Israeli authorities hoped the decision would resolve a divisive issue that some feared could jeopardize a planned visit by Pope John Paul II to the Holy Land next year.

An Islamic fundamentalist faction wanted to construct a huge mosque in the shadow of the Basilica of the Annunciation, said to be the site where the angel Gabriel told the Virgin Mary she was to give birth to Jesus.

The Vatican was outraged, saying that building the mosque there would be a provocation and hinting the Pope might cancel his trip.

Muslims, who want to build the mosque where an Islamic sage is buried, said the Pope should mind his own business.

Religious tensions last year provoked violence against Christian businesses  

"Those people are foreigners after all," said Islamic political leader Salman Abu Ahmad. "I am very surprised why the Pope is against the right to build a mosque in our own land."

Last Easter, the controversy erupted into violence. Mobs burned cars and Christians were assaulted on their way to church. More recently, Nazareth's Christian mayor was attacked by militant Muslims.

"I am blaming the government, the government of Israel," said Mayor Ramez Jarayseh.

Both Nazareth's Christians and Muslims accuse the previous government of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of deliberately stirring up friction. Arabs say Netanyahu wanted to discredit them and undermine Arab political unity in Israel.

Muslims and Christians also both say the Netanyahu government promised militant Muslims land for their mosque if they voted for Netanyahu in May's general election.

The Israeli government hasn't commented on those charges, but acknowledges the Netanyahu administration did offer Muslims the chance to build on the site.

Under a compromise, the Muslims will be offered a smaller mosque, with a cornerstone to be laid next month.

Israeli authorities say the arrangement resolves any concerns about the upcoming papal visit.

"I can assure you the Pope will come to Nazareth, the Holy Land and to Israel," said Israeli Public Security Minister Shlomo Ben Ami.

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