The millennium is upon us and peace and goodwill should fill hearts. But not in Nazareth. The Bible says that Roman soldiers mockingly put the initials INRI on the cross of Christ, which stood for Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. There aren’t many Romans in Nazareth today, where the population of this northern Israeli city is now two-thirds Muslim.
Tensions between Israel’s Christian-Arab population and Muslims are taut. The flash point is last months decision by the Israelis to allow the Muslims to build a mosque right beside the Basilica of the Annunciation—the largest Catholic shrine in the Middle East. Disputes over developing this area have been bitterly fought for several years. The land for the mosque is state land. It formerly housed a rundown school. The church expected to use the newly cleared area as a piazza in front of the basilica where millions of pilgrims are anticipated to come for the millennium.
The Muslims, led by the rapidly growing Islamic Movement that captured the Nazareth city council in 1998 elections, claim that land as their own on two grounds: that the school was built over the tomb of a nephew of Saladin and that it is holy, or part of the Islamic Waqf (religious endowment). As the dispute wound its way through the courts and bureaucracy, anti-Christian violence erupted. Earlier, Muslims erected and occupied a tent on the disputed land and would not leave until the Israeli government granted the permit on Oct. 13.
That permission triggered a furious reaction from Christians, who predictably decided that the villains were the Israelis. “We will punish them,” announced the Roman Catholic patriarch, presumably with a straight face. They proclaimed a strike—all churches and holy sites in Israel will be closed on Nov. 22 and 23. The Vatican followed up by suggesting that the Pope might cancel his trip to the Holy Land scheduled for next March—the first visit ever to Israel by a Pope—and with it the massive tourism anticipated.
If Israel has any blame in this matter, it is that their policy has been both opportunistic and cowardly. The Netanyahu government played up to the Muslims, promising them the mosque and hoping for votes. Building permission by the new Labour government was simply a continuation of this policy to avoid disturbing the peace process. But theocratic Islam cannot be appeased in this manner. Likud failed to get Muslim votes and any policy that demonstrates weakness will never bring peace. As one senior Jordanian government member told me: “There are enough mosques in Nazareth. This request was simply a provocation.”
The Christian reaction demonstrates other ignoble aspects.
The winds of change may have blown through the church in the West, but they have not yet caressed Christianity, Middle East-style. Dislike of Israel and the Jews is open among Christian patriarchs. As for the Vatican, Pope John Paul II may have fought the Soviet Union and communism, but he was younger then and had many allies. Today, Christians make up only two per cent of the Middle East, and America will not fight for them. Though the adversary of Christianity is Islam, not Judaism, the Pope must think about the welfare of his flock. It will not last long if Islam declares war on it.
Christian-Arabs themselves are a lost tribe. They long to be accepted as Arabs, but are outsiders. Muslim countries regard them as a contradiction in terms—as nonsensical as an Arab Jew. Christian-Arabs have contributed greatly to Middle East culture, but this gets no points. They are still Christians.
The West prefers to believe in two kinds of Islam. One is fundamentalism made up of irrational old mullahs and wildeyed radicals; the other is just like us. This is nonsense. While privately there are plenty of moderate Islamic adherents, no Islamic leader or theocracy has yet reformed Shari’ah (Islamic law). Around the world, theocratic Islam (as opposed to secular Turkey) is intolerant. For example, Article 340 of the Jordanian Penal Code, largely based on Shari’ah, exempts from penalty any man who kills his wife or any female relative for committing adultery. A recent survey in “moderate” Jordan, where a courageous King Abdullah is trying to amend this, indicated that 62 per cent of the population would object.
In June, a meeting was held in Galilee to effect reconciliation between Christians and Muslims. The vice-chairman of the Islamic Movement of Israel, Sheik Kamal Khatib spoke movingly of “tolerance and friendship and mutual respect.” Unfortunately, he also spoke movingly of appropriate treatment of monotheistic non-Muslims. Christians and Jews, for example, would not be forced to become Muslims, but could practise their own religion “protected” by Islam. In return, they would pay a poll tax and accept laws guaranteeing Muslim superiority. The Catholic Archbishop of Galilee wasn’t buying and the meeting broke up in fury.
This may be comic-tragic but it speaks volumes on a global problem: the West refuses to understand Islam or indeed most of the currents fuelling the Middle East. The only thing that seems clear is that the Jews are between a rock and a hard place. When Binyamin Netanyahu opened one door of a perfectly legal tunnel near a historic mosque in East Jerusalem, the West condemned him for a provocative act. When his successor, Ehud Barak attempted to appease the Muslims by giving them a building permit for a mosque, the Christians condemn him. For a Jew, it’s all achingly familiar.
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