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Catholic World News News Feature

Final Bar on Controversial Nazareth Mosque March 04, 2002

JERUSALEM, Mar 4, 02 ( -- The government of Israel has announced that it will put a permanent stop to plans for the construction of a mosque on land adjacent to the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth.

The Israeli government announcement, which came after weeks of delays and amidst a heated dispute, was greeted with pleasure by Catholic Church officials.

The Israeli decision came after a special panel commissioned to study the dispute voted 18- 1 to stop the construction permanently. The Israeli government had ordered a halt to the construction on January 10, and promised a final answer on the legality of the building project within three weeks. The postponement of that final decision had raised concerns among Christians in the area.

In Rome, papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls issued a formal statement saying that the final decision was an important step on "re-establishing legality, respect of the holy places, and consideration for the respective communities of believers."

Navarro-Valls pointed out that the decision was not directed against the Muslims of the region, since most Muslim leaders had opposed the effort by a militant group to build a mosque on that site. He expressed relief that "a provocative initiative" had been stopped, and hope "that the traditional harmonious coexistence between Muslims and Christians" could be restored in Nazareth.

Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the papal nuncio in the Holy Land, said that government had made "a wise decision, which reflects respect for the holy places." The Vatican envoy told the Fides news service that he hoped to see a restoration of "the atmosphere of coexistence that existed previously, and was ruined by the project for the mosque on this site."

The mosque construction had begun in 1999, after a small group of Muslims had occupied the plaza outside the Annunciation basilica, insisting that they had the right to build a mosque there. Despite court decisions indicating that the Muslim group had no legal claim to the property, the Israeli government-- under Prime Minister Ehud Barak-- had allowed construction to begin.

Christian groups had bitterly protested that decision, and complained that, even in the early stages of the construction process, pilgrims visiting the Annunciation basilica were facing intimidation and abuse. Christian leaders-- with the backing of most Muslim officials-- had recommended the construction of a new mosque on another site in Nazareth.

Archbishop Sambi, while welcoming the government's resolution of the dispute, reminded Israeli officials that they would need to be vigilant in preventing new conflicts in Nazareth in the wake of their weekend decision.

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