Islamske ekstremister truer kristne i Nasaret

JERUSALEM (FIDES/ - In the town of Nazareth, fundamentalist Muslims have stepped up pressure to intimidate Christians in the wake of an Israeli government decision allowing the construction of a mosque adjacent to the Basilica of the Annunciation. Now a leaflet is being circulated, threatening the life of Pope John Paul II.

The FIDES news agency reports that the leaflet-- which is written in Arabic, and unsigned-- features harsh anti-Catholic slogans and threatens violence if the Pope "dares to make the 2000 visit."

The leaflet, which has been circulating in Nazareth for a week, warns Christians living there that if the Pope visits the town in March 2000, "We will burn down your homes with our own hands. The whole world will watch us and the press will write about us."

The leaflet announces that all of the religious sites of the Holy Land are rightfully the property of Islam, and "the cross must disappear, and Islam take its place."

Building on the controversy over the mosque near the Basilica of the Annunciation, the leaflet says: "the church of the Annunciation must be purified of the infidels who have sullied it." The unknown authors of the leaflet proclaim that they will turn the basilica itself into a mosque.

The Franciscan Custodian of the Holy Land, Father Giovanni Battistelli, told FIDES that "there is great sadness and anxiety among the local Christians, despite words of reassurance" from several Israeli government ministries. "The leaflet," he explained, "has increased tension and already caused violence near the Basilica of the Annunciation."

The Franciscan priest related that several incidents have occurred near the basilica, which has been the focal point of tensions for almost a full year:

"On Friday a young Christian from Nazareth was stabbed, another, wearing a cross and chain around his neck, was slapped; a group of pilgrims were insulted. Days earlier, fundamentalists hurled stones and rocks at the Church of St Joseph, pilgrims had to take refuge inside, and one of our fathers was spat upon."

Father Battistelli also reported that, in direct violation of an agreement forged by the Israeli government, an Islamic fundamentalist group has set up a tent in the public square outside the Basilica of the Annunciation. The Islamic group had laid a claim on the property in the square, announcing plans to build a mosque there, and setting up a tent to proclaim squatters' rights. The Israeli government-- ignoring repeated Christian pleas and protests-- had allowed construction of the mosque, with the proviso that the Islamic group would clear the square. That proviso is now being ignored.

Father Battistelli said that Israeli authorities appear reluctant to become involved in the controversy, and even to safeguard the Christian community. He reported that when Church officials scheduled a meeting to go over security procedures for the Christmas celebrations in Nazareth, police failed to show up for that meeting.

Father David Jaeger, OFM, one of the architects of the diplomatic agreements between Israel and the Holy See, is now in Nazareth. He told Fides that the people there are worried. In their view, the decision by the Israeli government to allow the mosque construction showed the power of a small fundamentalist group. That group, buoyed by their success in obtaining permission to build the mosque, is now even more aggressive.

However, Father Jaeger has spoken with several more moderate Islamic leaders in Nazareth, all of whom have assured him that the fundamentalist group is unrepresentative of the Muslims in Nazareth, and that the threats contained in the controversial leaflet are embarrassing to other Muslims. Father Jaeger pointed out that many Islamic leaders-- from Egypt and Saudi Arabia, as well as the Palestinian Authority-- have opposed the building of a mosque on that particular site in Nazareth, on the grounds that the project will inflame tensions and divide the community.

Father Jaeger holds out the hope that the Israeli government might reconsider its approval for the mosque construction process, FIDES reported. From his perspective in Nazareth, Father Jaeger told the Vatican news agency that "a top-ranking personality-- whose name I cannot reveal-- confirmed to me that the government is seriously reconsidering the question."

He said that there are two reasons for the government's willingness to think twice about the controversy. First, Israeli government authorities are under pressure from Christian leaders, both in the country and around the world. Second, government officials are beginning to recognize the dangerous precedent that could be set by bowing to the will of a fundamentalist Muslim group.

Catholic World News Feature