In their strongest statement on the issue to date, the three major Christian denominations in Israel and the West Bank closed church doors for two days in November to protest an Israeli proposal to permit construction of a mosque alongside Nazareth's Church of the Annunciation.
Leaders of the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Armenian churches said the Israeli decision, in effect, constitutes discrimination against the local Christian community and a government show of favoritism toward a small group of Muslim "fundamentalists."
"Peaceful co-existence and confident harmony have recently been shaken by a series of sad events that have been painful and counterproductive for the majority of both faith communities," the letter said.
"Despite the ruling of the court of law in Israel that the land adjacent to the Basilica of the Annunciation is state land, the government has supported a small group of fundamentalists who are intent on building a mosque only a few meters away from the historical church of the Annunciation in Nazareth."
The decision to close the churches in midweek was intended to express the "disapprobation of all the churches at the way that their rights have been summarily violated," added the letter, signed by Greek Orthodox Patriarch Diodoris I, Latin (Catholic) Patriarch Michel Sabbah, and Armenian Patriarch Torkom Manoogian.
"There can't be a shadow of a doubt concerning the government commitment toward Christian freedom of worship in every site in Israel," said Shlomo Ben Ami, Israeli Minister of Public Security, in a statement that expressed regret about the protest.
"Any sort of damage or a threat of damage to the legitimate religious interests of the Christians in the state of Israel as a whole and especially in Nazareth will be dealt with by a firm hand, as is required in a state of law," his statement said.
In October, an Israeli court ruled that Muslim leaders in Nazareth have no legal right to block plans by the town's Christian mayor to construct a plaza area next to the Church of the Annunciation that would accommodate millions of Christian pilgrims expected to visit during 2000. The Nazareth District Court ruled that only about 135 square yards of the half-acre plot is legally owned by the waqf (an Islamic religious trust) and that the rest being state-owned land.
Muslim activists seized the land two years ago and erected a makeshift mosque on the site. They insisted the land was owned by the waqf, and that a permanent mosque should be constructed on the plot.
Meanwhile, plans are proceeding for a visit by Pope John Paul II in March. "The local churches might protest, they might do something, but I don't think it will affect the papal visit," said Rabbi David Rosen, a liaison to the Vatican for the Israel office of the Anti-Defamation League.
See our earlier coverage of this issue, "Preparing for Pilgrims | Religious rivalry complicates millennial planning."
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.