By John Thavis
Catholic News Service
Decemeber 6th, 1999
        ROME (CNS) -- Israel's decision to allow construction of a
mosque next to a major Catholic basilica in Nazareth bodes ill for the
future safeguarding of holy places in the region, said the president of
the Pontifical Mission for Palestine, Msgr. Robert L. Stern.
        Msgr. Stern said he hoped Israel would reconsider the
controversial decision, especially given growing Muslim support for an
alternative site for the mosque.
        He made his comments to reporters in Rome Dec. 9, after meeting
with Pope John Paul II to mark the 50th anniversary of the pontifical
mission. The pope wants to go to Nazareth as part of his jubilee-year
pilgrimage to the Holy Land next March, but Vatican officials have
hinted that the papal itinerary could be affected by the mosque
        Msgr. Stern said it was ``indispensable'' to find a new site for
the mosque, which under an Israeli compromise plan was to be built next
to the Basilica of the Annunciation.
        He said Israeli leaders seemed to forget that even a local
conflict over holy places in the Holy Land can have ``worldwide
repercussions,'' since there are some 2 billion Christians and Muslims
whose sensitivities might be affected.
        ``It represents a bad sign for the future of Jerusalem, too,''
Msgr. Stern said.
        He pointed out that the Vatican has asked for international
guarantees to protect the sacred character of Jerusalem for Christians,
Muslim and Jews, but Israel -- which claims all Jerusalem as its capital
-- has insisted that its own policies are enough to protect the rights
of all believers and their access to the holy places.
        ``The Nazareth situation is a perfect example of why
international guarantees are needed,'' Msgr. Stern said.
        He said the mosque had been proposed by a minority of Muslim
extremists, and he noted that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, along
with the authorities of Saudi Arabia and Jordan, had requested an
alternative site for the Muslim place of worship.
        Msgr. Stern said the mosque controversy had arisen out of a
``political game'' played out earlier this year during Israeli
elections. In effect, he said, the episode showed that ``the votes of
the Muslim population in Israel are much more important than the votes
of Christians, because Muslims are much more numerous.
        ``But unfortunately, this political game has created problems in
a community that never had problems before. The Christians and Muslims
of Nazareth always had fine relations,'' he said.