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Wednesday, 9 January, 2002, 16:08 GMT
Israel halts mosque construction
Muslims praying outside the Basilica of the Annunciation
Muslims and Christians claim the same plot of land
Israel has decided to halt construction of a controversial mosque in the town of Nazareth, an Israeli official has said.

Plans to build the mosque next to a major Christian shrine had been fiercely opposed by Christian groups and had led to tension between Israel and the Vatican.

The Pope at the Basilica in March, 2000
The Vatican criticised Israel for allowing the mosque to be built
Police in Nazareth were prepared for protests by the local Islamic Movement, which had funded the mosque's construction.

Christians and Muslims in Nazareth both claimed the right to build on the plot of land, which is adjacent to the Basilica of the Annunciation, the largest church in the Middle East.

Two years ago, Israel gave the Muslims permission to build the mosque, a move denounced by Christian groups as an attempt by Israel to win the support of the increasingly-influential Islamic Movement.

Israel said about a third of the land belonged to a Muslim religious trust.

Conflicting claims

The Vatican opposed the plans and accused Israel of creating "the foundation to foment division", a charge Israel refuted.

The Palestinians, meanwhile, accused the Israelis of approving the construction as a way to stir up strife between Arab Christians and Muslims.

The construction of the mosque - dedicated to Shihab al-Din, said to be the nephew of the Muslim hero Saladin who drove Christian Crusaders out of Jerusalem in the 12th Century - began several weeks ago and its foundation has already been completed.

According to Muslim tradition, Shihab al-Din lies buried under the disputed land.

Christians say the Basilica is where the Angel Gabriel told Mary she would give birth to Jesus.

The government source said ministers have been asked to find an alternative site for the mosque.

The BBC's Mark Duff
"The row over the mosque has in the past led to riots"
See also:

25 Mar 00 | Middle East
Pope prays in divided Nazareth
24 Nov 99 | Middle East
Israel condemns Vatican in mosque row
22 Nov 99 | Middle East
Christians take action in Nazareth
04 Nov 99 | Middle East
Churches to close in mosque protest
09 Oct 99 | Middle East
Nazareth tension over mosque plans
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