Why Israel Vexed the Vatican Over Nazareth

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Confronted with a dilemma of Solomonic proportions — whether to allow the construction of a mosque adjacent to one of the most sacred Christian sites in the Holy Land — the Israeli government ended up doing what was politically expedient. Israel Wednesday rejected the Vaticanís accusation that the Jewish state was fomenting religious division by permitting the new building next to the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth. "In the end it was simply a political decision," says TIME Jerusalem bureau chief Lisa Beyer. "There are a lot more Muslim voters in Israel than there are Christian voters. That's what influenced the government to accommodate them, even though they had no legitimate historical claim to the land." Local Muslims had lobbied hard to build alongside the church, which stands on the site where Mary is said to have learned that she was pregnant with the baby Jesus.

The Nazareth row casts a shadow over the planned visit to Israel by Pope John Paul II next March. But although the Vatican is deeply irritated by Israel's decision, there's no indication thus far that it will postpone the visit. Nazareth Muslim leader Suleiman Abu Ahmed sought to play down divisions, saying, "We are going to build a Mosque to pray to God, the same God of the Christians and the Jews." He promised that the mosque would be "the brother of the church." But worship always carries a political motif in the hotly contested Holy Land. The Nazareth mosque, for example, will be dedicated to Shihab al-Din, the nephew of the legendary Salah el-Din — Saladin — who drove the Christian crusaders from Jerusalem in the 12th century.