Nazareth (CNSNews.com) - A simmering controversy over the illegal construction of a mosque next to the largest church in the Middle East, is threatening to divide Nazareth's Muslim and Christian communities, which have lived together peacefully for hundreds of years, residents say.
But moderate Muslims and Christians there say it is up to the Israeli government to put a stop to the construction of the mosque by the radical Islamic Movement and prevent the rift from occurring.
Atef Yousef Mohammed Al Fahoum, a 72-year-old father of four and grandfather of 13, is the trustee of the White Mosque, the oldest mosque in town. The 250-year-old structure is about a block away from the Basilica of the Annunciation, where tradition says the angel Gabriel told Mary she would bare the baby Jesus.
Sitting in his son's coffee shop, where the aroma of freshly ground coffee tantalized a handful of reporters on a pre-Christmas tour of Nazareth, Al Fahoum said he had gathered his courage to speak out as a resident of Nazareth for the good of the city.
Such courage runs in his family. Al Fahoum's father was the mayor of Nazareth in 1948, when Israel became a nation. He prevented locals from fleeing advancing Israeli troops and therefore prevented them from becoming refugees.
Al Fahoum boasts that his father, and not Egyptian President Anwar Sadat 30 years later, was the first Arab leader in the region to recognize the United Nations partition plan that created the State of Israel and to sign a treaty with the fledgling state.
Historically, there has been no struggle between the Christian and Muslim communities of Nazareth, Al Fahoum said. But now things may be changing.
"The construction of the mosque is close to the church. The border of the church is exactly on the edge," he said.
"This has nothing to do with religion at all," Al Fahoum said. It has to do with building an idea, and therefore the extremists want to turn the area into a religious place, he added.
The controversy erupted four years ago after the city announced plans to build a piazza for tourists in the city center near the Basilica of the Annunciation and tore down a small, unused Muslim school to do so.
The Islamic Movement put up a giant tent mosque in protest and claimed it had a right to build a mosque there and that a great Islamic sage was buried nearby.
The controversy kicked into high gear three years ago when Christians in the town were physically attacked on Christmas and the following Easter by extremists who threw rocks at them as they were leaving the church.
The government stepped in to offer a compromise plan two years ago, which included dividing the area to provide for a mosque, a small plaza and police station.
But church officials, as high up as the Vatican, and moderate Muslims in the town were not happy about the compromise and have called on the state to return to the original building plan.
"All the Muslims of the Muslim world could not build a mosque here if Israel doesn't let them," Al Fahoum said. "Israel wants to be an oasis of democracy in the Middle East [to be able to say] even if you Muslims want to build a mosque next to a church, you can." But, he said, the city already has 11 mosques and that is enough.
Some 30 percent of Nazareth's population is Christian, while 70 percent are Muslim. It was not clear how many of those are turning to the radical Islamic Movement, but he said the number is "growing."
"We are not encouraging Christians or Muslims here. We are asking the state, 'let us live in peace," Al Fahoum said.
"We don't know who is behind it, but the State of Israel as a government can stop any kind of violence," said Joe Fahoum, Al Fahoum's brother.
For Israel the situation is very sensitive, observers say. If Israel permits the building of the mosque, the entire Christian world, including the Vatican will be angry about it. If Israel forbids it, the radical Islamic world could do much worse.
The 2,000-square-meter triangular plot of land sits in the center of the city, where a side street branches off the very narrow main street toward the Basilica of the Annunciation.
Atallah Mansour, a journalist and local Christian, said it is Israel's fault that this problem developed. He downplayed any conspiracy theory and blamed the trouble on the fact that the Muslims have no Muslim institutions in Nazareth.
"It's not a Muslim conspiracy [or that] they want to dominate us," said Mansour. "No they don't. They want to burst out of their cage.
"When there were 10 or 11 mosques built in Nazareth from 1967 to 2000 no one ever opened his mouth. Now they are coming to impose themselves in the town center to prevent the town from having its first [public] square," he said.
Many local Christians have been very timid to speak out against the building of the mosque.
One Christian man, who said he had seen bones being dug up from the site, asked that his name not be used, because he said, he would have "100 Muslims" coming after him.
He said the Christian community didn't want any problems with its Muslim neighbors. Therefore, they would keep silent, he said pursing his lips and gesturing to zip his mouth closed with his fingers.
At the site of the mosque it was easy to understand why. Several weeks ago, the Islamic Movement began digging there without a permit. Despite a stop work order, a giant pit was dug and some 100 truckloads of dirt removed.
Locals at the site threatened journalists who tried to ask questions and take pictures. If they valued their health, they were warned through a translator, they had better leave immediately.
A group of international Catholics and Protestants, which includes archeologists, have recently become more involved in the struggle to stop the construction.
Among their complaints the International Coalition for Nazareth, which organized the tour, says before anything can be built a proper excavation must be conducted. It is possible that the site could have been part of an ancient cemetery dating to the time of Jesus, in the city that was his boyhood home.