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Monday, 22 November, 1999, 09:37 GMT
Christians take action in Nazareth
Christians oppose plans for a new mosque near the Basilica of the Annunciation

Church officials in Israel say they will go ahead with a threatened two-day closure of Christian sites in Israel and the occupied territories, in protest at plans to build a mosque near a holy Christian site.

The row centres on the Israeli Government's decision to allow the construction of a mosque in the city of Nazareth, on a site close to the Basilica of the Annunciation, where Mary is said to have learned she would give birth to Jesus.

The Christian sites will be closed despite last-ditch attempts by the Israeli Government on Sunday to persuade church authorities to cancel the protest. Public Security Minister, Shlomo Ben Ami, described the decision to go ahead with the closure as "lamentable".

Christians and Muslims in Nazareth have argued over the past two years over who has the right to build on the plot of land near the imposing basilica.

Arbitration

Forced to arbitrate, the Israeli Government gave the Muslims the right to build a mosque, in honour of Shihab al-Din, said to be the nephew of the Muslim hero, Saladin, who drove the Crusaders out of Jeruslam in the 12th Century.

Mr Ben Ami called the closure decision "lamentable"
The cornerstone of the Mosque is due to be laid on Tuesday, with the government insisting that further construction be delayed until the end of next year.

The Christians, who want to build a plaza to accommodate Millennium pilgrims, have reacted with outrage.

The churches argue their rights are being neglected by an Israeli Government more interested in currying favour with the country's increasingly-influential Islamic movement.

Preserving coexistence

The government says it merely wants to preserve inter-faith coexistence in a land held sacred by three great religions.

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

Mr Ben Ami urged the Palestinians not to get involved in what he said were internal Israeli affairs and said the government's intention was not to "divide and rule".

The BBC's Middle East correspondent, Paul Adams, says the churches know there is little they can do to stop the mosque being built.

But he says this symbolic protest will worry the government, which hopes to present a harmonious face to the outside world on the eve of this important year of celebration

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See also:
17 Nov 99 |  Middle East
Pope's Holy Land trip confirmed
04 Nov 99 |  Middle East
Churches to close in mosque protest
14 Oct 99 |  Middle East
Papal visit to Holy Land threatened
05 Apr 99 |  Middle East
Easter clashes in Nazareth

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