20-Dec-99 -- EWTN Feature Story

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

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

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.