NAZARETH, Israel, (RNS) March 26--When Pope John Paul II uttered the ancientgreeting "peace be unto you" in Arabic during Saturday's Mass here atthe Basilica of the Annunciation, Awad Abu-Sini felt an unfamiliar tingle of emotion well up inside.

"He was praying with us in Arabic. It was perhaps the first time Ireally felt myself as a Christian here within a supportive community,"said the 65-year-old Catholic souvenir store owner. "It gave meencouragement that I hadn't expected."

From the start, preparations for the pope's visit to Nazareth onwere tinged with dispute and disagreements that haveproven deeply demoralizing for this ancient community, which todayconstitutes the largest concentration of Christians in Israel and theWest Bank.

Two years ago, as urban renovations for the millennium and thepope's visit were in high gear, the Muslim activist group Shihab-a-din occupied a plot of land adjacent to the landmark basilica--built over the spot where tradition says Mary learned she would give birth to Jesus--and demanded a mosque be built there.

The site had originally been earmarked as a millennial plaza wherethe pope would be received.

Ensuing months of Muslim-Christian tensions erupted into violencelast Easter. The subsequent decision by an Israeli governmentministerial commission to permit the construction of the mosque on thesite enraged the Vatican, however, and almost torpedoed the papal visithere. Moreover, it underlined the political vulnerability of the localChristian minority to the growing Muslim majority, both in Nazareth andthe Galilee, the ancient heartland of the church.

But even when relative Muslim-Christian calm had returned, theChristian community here remained weak and demoralized. NazareneCatholics suffer from a long legacy of conflict and alienation betweenArab laity on the grassroots and the predominantly foreign clergy whocontrol the city's church institutions, said Abu-Sinni.

And that alienation overshadowed any excitement about the historicpapal tour, which concluded Sunday.

"We feel neglected and scattered," Abu-Sinni said. "We have noleaders, no initiative to unite us. Most of the priests in the Latin(Roman) church are from Italy. There are very few Arab clergy, and mostof the services are held in Latin, rather than in Arabic. On Sunday, ifyou go to the basilica, you can count the number of Arab worshippers inthe tens and twenties. I myself prefer to pray in the Greek Catholic churchnearby. At least they have a service and a nice choir in Arabic."

Against this general atmosphere of gloom, Nazareth's local Christianleaders were particularly disappointed by the Vatican and Israeligovernment move to limit the pontiff's visit here to a ceremonial Massat the basilica.

They saw it as further evidence of their marginality in the eyes ofthe powers-that-be in Rome. Notably, the large outdoor mass that hadoriginally been planned for tens of thousands of local Christians on ahill overlooking at the city was cancelled, ostensibly for logistic andsecurity reasons.

Instead, the event was relocated to a hillside near the Mount of theBeatitudes on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, where it was held Friday before an audience of tens of thousands dominated by foreign tourists, rather than local Arab Christians.

Still, somehow, despite all of the disappointments associated withthe preparations, Nazarenes like Abu-Sinni ultimately said they feltencouraged when the popemobile finally entered the city.

Indeed, the pontiff's arrival here was met with an unexpected waveof emotion not only among the limited church audience but also on thestreets, where tens of thousands of Nazarenes stood for hours just toget a glimpse of the pontiff, who waved weakly despite the fatigueetched on his face.

"We Christians live here in a very difficult situation," saidAbu-Sinni, his voice gruff with feeling. "We passed through two years ofdesperation. The preparations for the visit were controlled by thepolice and the security services.

"So we were very pessimistic because we knew that the pope's visitwas mixed with politics. He had to make gestures to the Palestinians, tothe Jews and to the Muslims--what was there left for him to do for hisown community, the largest one in Israel and the Holy Land? I didn'texpect much.

"Yet when people spontaneously shouted `we love you pope' there wasa climax of emotion that I have never seen before inside that Basilicaof the Annunciation. We now feel a little more united and hopeful. Wefeel encouraged that we can show that the followers of Jesus are stillalive, in Nazareth, the city of Jesus."

Another hopeful outcome of the visit was the peaceful welcome thatwas accorded to the pope by the city's Muslim community, whichconstitutes an estimated 60 to 70 percent of the city's 60,000residents, depending on whether the informal census is being made by aChristian or a Muslim.

At the disputed plot of land adjacent to the Basilica where theShihab-a-din mosque is soon to be built, hundreds of Muslims watchedthe papal procession in respectful silence. Dozens of Muslim activistleaders, wearing green hats and carrying walkie-talkies, kept the peacein the mixed crowds of Christians and Muslims, working right alongsidethe regular Israeli police force.