Jerusalem's Cops Play Apocalypse Busters

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Jerusalem's police have bigger things to worry about than the Y2K bug — the Holy City's gendarmes are concerned about their precinct playing ground zero in some attempt to hasten a New Year's Eve Armageddon.

Most recently, the Israeli authorities angered conservative Jewish groups when they slapped down an attempt by Jerusalem's right-wing mayor, Ehud Olmert, to stop construction of a new emergency exit at the Al Aqsa mosque, the third holiest site in Islam that sits on top of the holiest site in Judaism, the Temple Mount. A perennial problem for the keepers of the city's peace is the fact that Jewish prophecy posits the rebuilding of Solomon's Temple as a precondition for the arrival of the Messiah, which would inevitably involve the destruction of Al Aqsa.

Both sides keep a wary eye on the other's construction efforts, and a massive outbreak of violence followed an Israel decision to open a new access tunnel in September 1996. But despite Jewish objections, the Labor government of newly elected prime minister Ehud Barak could see the logic of adding additional exits and worshiping space in a mosque that draws tens of thousands of Muslims to prayer. More important, Barak deemed any attempt to stop the construction as likely to inflame tensions at a point when the city least needs them. The Temple Mount "is the most sensitive place in the world," says Israeli cabinet minister Haim Ramon. And December's combining of Hanukkah, Ramadan and the end of the millennium made it "the most sensitive month ever."

But while Israel is being sensitive to Muslim sensibilities, Christian groups are complaining about their treatment at the hands of the Jewish state. Israel's decision to allow the construction of a mosque adjacent to the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth drew a furious response from the Vatican, and raised the possibility of the pope canceling a scheduled Holy Land visit in the New Year. Not that the local constabulary would complain too much if His Holiness bows out. "If he does come, security officials are worried to death that some extremist, either Jewish or Muslim, will try to kill him," says TIME Jerusalem bureau chief Lisa Beyer.

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