The Vatican, in a statement issued in Rome, called on the Israeli government to stop "Muslim extremists" from building the mosque next to the church marking the site where Christians believe the angel Gabriel told Mary she would give birth to Jesus. "Building the mosque here will in effect put this holy place in a state of permanent siege and make its gate a gathering place for the most hostile elements," the statement said, according to the Vatican news service Fides.
Israeli authorities charged Wednesday that the work constituted a provocation and threatened to stop the construction by force, even as the Muslim holy month of Ramadan begins. Local Christians warned the work could re-ignite the interreligious violence that erupted at the site last year.
Construction on the mosque began Monday, without the necessary permits, but the Israeli Lands Authority ordered it halted. The Waqf, or Islamic Trust, stopped the work Wednesday but said it will start again if it does not get the necessary permits within a week. Witnesses said crews were working at the site Monday and Tuesday nights in an apparent attempt to keep the construction secret.
A lawyer for the Muslims, Dan Shafrir, said the construction had been going on day and night. The Israeli Lands Authority promised to help the Islamic Trust obtain the permits for the Muslim-owned land if the construction was stopped, Shafrir said. "We're not hiding anything from anyone," Shafrir said. "Whether or not we get the permits, we will continue construction in a week." The construction was halted only temporarily, and steel beams arrived at the site on Wednesday, said Ahmed Saleh Hamudeh, the head of the Islamic Trust in Nazareth.
Christians are a minority in Nazareth, and tensions over the mosque have been running high between the Christian community and the Muslim majority in the city of 70,000. Nazareth is the largest Arab city in Israel.
Under pressure from Christian leaders, including the Vatican, the previous Israeli government worked out a compromise in 1999 to defuse a tense situation in which Muslims were praying in a large tent a few meters (yards) from the church, as a planned millennium visit by Pope John Paul II neared. The Vatican had hinted the issue could force the cancellation of the pope's visit, which took place as scheduled in March 2000.
According to the agreement, the tent was removed, and a mosque would be built on one third of the 2,000-square-meter (half-acre) plot, but only after the millennium year. Church leaders in the Holy Land complain that Israel made excessive concessions to the Muslims, while ignoring promises made to Christian leaders, including the pope.
Despite the pledges of the previous government, Israeli officials are indicating that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will not allow construction of the mosque. "A decision on the matter will be made by the government" due to the sensitivity of the issue, Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nachshon said. "We are absolutely against the work going on at the moment."
Israel believes that starting construction days before the start of Ramadan is a cynical use of the holiday by the Muslims, with the hope authorities will not act to stop the work, a government official said on condition of anonymity. The authorities will forcibly halt the work if necessary, the official said.
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, himself a Muslim, sided with the Christians in the dispute, saying in December 1999 that the Muslims should not build the mosque so close to the church. The Muslims say a Crusader-era sage is buried at the site, and they hoped to build a large mosque there. Church leaders wanted the plot for a plaza to accommodate millennium pilgrims.