Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Christian leaders cautiously welcomed on Thursday an Israeli cabinet decision to suspend the building of a mosque next to a prominent church in Nazareth. The construction has created friction between the town's Christian and Muslim populations and drawn international criticism.
The row over the building of a mosque next to Basilica of the Annunciation, where tradition says the Angel Gabriel foretold of the coming of Jesus, started several years ago.
But the dispute in Nazareth, the boyhood hometown of Jesus, was rekindled when the Islamic movement began digging the foundation for the mosque without permits last month, ignoring a court injunction to stop. The foundation has now been completed.
But the Israeli security cabinet decided on Wednesday to enforce the court injunction against the construction. The cabinet also appointed a ministerial committee to come up with an alternative to a plan approved by the previous government, which has fueled the Christian-Muslim dispute in Nazareth and angered the Christian world.
Pope John Paul II threatened to cancel his historic trip to the Holy Land in March 2000 over the affair and last year President Bush raised the issue with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Christian leaders here said on Thursday that they hoped that the government would follow through and come up with an alternative plan in two weeks.
The Vatican declined to comment on the decision and deferred a response to the Latin Patriarch in Jerusalem.
Father Raed, Chancellor of the Latin Patriarchate here, said the decision was positive but said the most important thing is that Christian-Muslim relations in the city of Nazareth be preserved.
"We hope this is true and it will be implemented on the ground," Father Raed said.
But the issue will not be resolved by just deciding to not build the mosque, Raed said. The problem must be solved in a way that there is a "win-win" situation and the co-existence between local Christians and Muslims is preserved, he added.
Rev. Ray Lockhart, Chairman of the United Christian Council in Israel, said he is "thankful" for the decision, but cautioned against complacency in the Christian world regarding the issue.
"I'm very happy that a decision like this has been taken," Lockhart said. "The government is taking [notice] that there is a strong stir in the Christian community here and abroad...[that is] providing them with a mandate to take action."
Lockhart, who is involved in an international coalition of Catholics and Protestants on behalf of the cause, cautioned that Christians worldwide needed to "maintain a high degree of alertness... [and] vigilance on the matter" to pressure the government to ensure that what it wants to do will get done.
"There is no doubt as to which way the wind is blowing in government circles," he said, but the coalition wants to make sure it is "turned into reality."
Officials in Jerusalem say the issue is highly sensitive and declined to comment on it. Deciding to permit the building of the mosque would anger the Christian and Western world, while forbidding the structure could anger the Muslim world.
But a well-placed source in Jerusalem said the main aim of the government is to come up with an alternative proposal within two weeks "to resolve the situation so it doesn't create further friction between Christians and Muslims."
Oddly enough, as national infrastructure minister in 1996, Sharon had recommended that another site be found for the mosque.
Another source here, who did not want to be identified either, said that it was clear that the Islamic fundamentalists are "inviting provocation."
"They want a confrontation," he said. "Everyone in Nazareth is an Arab. We could have expected more understanding from the Moslems there. Bethlehem is the first symbol of Christianity. Nazareth is the second symbol."
Atef Mohammed Al-Fahoum, the Trustee of the oldest mosque in Nazareth, is a leading Muslim in the community, who said he wants to see the problem resolved as quickly as possible.
"We hope the decision will take place in our life," Al-Fahoum said. "We want law and discipline...and to keep the relations in the community. We are accustomed to [live our] lives in peace and harmony," he said.
The Islamic movement, responsible for the mosque construction, said it would wait for a Supreme Court ruling before taking any action.
Following Easter services in 1999, the dispute erupted into street clashes. Observers say that the local Christian community is too afraid to protest the construction of the mosque.
Muslims, Christians Want Israel To Stop Nazareth Mosque Construction (27 Dec. 2001)