A day earlier, leaders of the main Christian denominations in the Holy Land demanded Israel halt the building of the mosque beside the Basilica of the Annunciation. Christians believe the church stands on the spot where the Angel Gabriel told the Virgin Mary that she would give birth to Jesus.
A prominent priest in Jerusalem said this week that construction workers digging at the site hauled away human bones and pillars that may have come from a first-century church or synagogue. The leaders of 12 churches complained that the Israeli government had treated their appeals "with virtual contempt."
The dispute arose when the Israeli city of Nazareth, home to 70,000 Arabs, approved a plan for a public square in front of the church for the thousands of Christian pilgrims who were expected to visit for millennium celebrations. But the Israeli government says about a third of the square belongs to the Wakf--the Muslim religious trust--and approved a Muslim request to build a mosque there. "The decision is a compromise between the desires of the Muslims and the preservation of the predominance of the Basilica," the Foreign Ministry statement said.
The plan approved by the government is for a "small, modest mosque" with a minaret that does not exceed 75 feet in height, the statement said, adding that the site had in the past been used as a place for Muslim prayers, a Muslim school and Muslim-owned shops.
Pope John Paul II threatened to cancel a millennium visit to the Holy Land over the issue. The Israeli government said a small mosque could be built only after the millennium year was over.
In recent days, without waiting for a building permit, Muslims began excavating a foundation for the mosque, setting off a new wave of protests from Christians. In the Christian complaint, the church leaders accused the Israeli government of promoting "an ill-advised plan of certain Israeli political circles, who are making use of a marginal group of Muslims in order to sow division between Christians and Muslims."
The "marginal group" is the Israeli Islamic Movement, the dominant religious group among Israeli Muslims that has won control of the municipal councils in many of the Arab towns and villages.
The Christian statement was signed by the Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Patriarchs and heads of the Coptic, Ethiopian, Syrian, Episcopal, Lutheran and other churches.