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The BBC's Jane Little
''The Vatican is clearly furious''
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The BBC's Paul Adams
"This dispute has spread bitterness"
 real 28k

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak
"We are doing our best that the three religions will be able to live together"
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Wednesday, 24 November, 1999, 13:14 GMT
Israel condemns Vatican in mosque row
Muslims pray at the site beneath the Basilica of the Annunciation Muslims pray at the site of the planned mosque

Israel has rejected accusations by the Vatican that it is creating religious divisions by allowing a mosque to be built close to a major Christian shrine in Nazareth.

The Foreign Minister, David Levy, condemned the criticism as ''very grave'' and said Israel had done all it could to stem the dispute.

Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem A worshipper at the locked gate of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem
The cornerstone for the mosque was laid on Tuesday. Christian churches throughout the Holy Land have now reopened their doors after a two day closure in protest at the plan.

Chief Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls has accused the authorities of creating ''the foundation to foment division".

The row centres on the Israeli Government's decision to allow the construction of a mosque in 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 dispute signals the most serious strain between Israel and the Vatican since the two established diplomatic relations in 1994.

We are going to build a mosque ... not a dance hall or a casino
Suleiman Abu Ahmed
Mr Levy said he hoped the row would not affect plans for Pope John Paul to visit the Holy Land in March.

"I think that after things are clarified with people here and with the Vatican, it will become clear that everything Israel has done has stemmed from a concern to settle the dispute, lower tensions and achieve understanding," he added.

The BBC's religious affairs correspondent, Jane Little, says the trip should have been an occasion to foster unity between the two states.

But it is now uncertain whether the Pope will go to Nazareth and he may well use the occasion to offer more unwelcome criticism.

'It's not a casino'

The stone was unveiled by the leader of the town's Islamic Movement, Suleiman Abu Ahmed.

"Today, with the unveiling of the foundation stone, the problems in Nazareth have come to an end," he said.

Mr Ahmed also tried to play down the controversy, saying the mosque was "the brother of the church".

"We are going to build a mosque to pray to God, the same God of Christians, Muslims and Jews. We are not going to build on this land a dance hall or a casino," he said.

The mosque will be 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.

Millennium plaza

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.

The first stone of the planned four-storey mosque The first stone of the planned four-storey mosque
Christians have been given permission to build a plaza for millenium visitors on another part of the same site, but they had originally hoped to use the entire plot of land.

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.

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.

Public Security Minister Shlomo 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".

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See also:
22 Nov 99 |  Middle East
Protest as mosque work begins
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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