December 22, 1999
Growing up, I also heard stories on the news about violence in the Middle East, about terrorist attacks and failed attempts at peace in Israel and Palestine. What I didn't realize back then was that these two stories, one of joy at the birth of a child, and one of the horrors of war, occurred in exactly the same location.
Nazareth (En-Nasra in Arabic) is a large Palestinian, Arab city inside the borders of Israel proper, in an area in the northeast called the Galilee. The city covers two hillsides, full of modern buildings mixed in with dozens of churches and mosques. Our bus wound its way through the rugged hills of Galilee, past cities and villages, and over the hill towards Nazareth. As we pulled into town, we noticed several new, fancy hotels, just nearing completion. The people of Nazareth are expecting a huge number of tourists to come here for Christmas and New Year's, so they want to be prepared!
Nazareth remained a predominantly Jewish city until the 6th century, when the Arab conquest took place. A small Christian community grew up there, gaining strength during the Crusader period. But they were forced to leave in 1187, when Salah al-Din, of Egypt, drove the Crusaders out at the famous battle at the Horns of Hittim, just over the hill from Nazareth, towards the Sea of Galilee.
Through the centuries, under Arab and Ottoman Muslim rule, the Christian community was allowed to return, but occasionally they faced persecution. By the beginning of the 20th century, the town was about half Muslim Arab and half Christian Arab. The British took control of the area and they made Nazareth the administrative headquarters of the Galilee. When they left in 1948, the newly formed state of Israel captured the town. But unlike in most parts of the country, the majority of the Arabs didn't flee.
So now, this bustling town of Nazareth, population 54,100, is home to a people that we don't hear too much about, Arab Israelis. Making up about 20% of the Israeli population, these Palestinians carry Israeli passports, have the right to vote in Israel, and basically have all the rights of Israeli citizens. Some have even served in the IDF (Israeli Defense Force), but not many. They are not required to serve in the army like Jewish Israelis are.
It's a theme we have been seeing all over Palestine. In some places, churches and synagogues were destroyed by the Muslim invaders, and in other places, they were left to stand. But everywhere, it seems, a mosque has been built with at least one minaret higher than the top of the other buildings. Not that anyone would ever admit it, but it does seem to be a case of "mine's bigger than yours" mentality. Although it's not a direct or a violent attack on anyone, it seems to be a bone of contention among the many different religious groups that live here in the Holy Land. On the highest hilltop in Nazareth, a tall Islamic minaret already stands over the whole city.
Since I'm being so blunt in this dispatch anyway, I might as well mention that the outside of the church is not exactly known for being attractive. Sorry, guys. But, architectural aesthetics aside, this is still a major spot for Christian pilgrims to visit. The inside of the church is fairly attractive, fortunately. There's a small chapel over the grotto where the Angel Gabriel supposedly spoke to Mary. (No one could explain to me well why Mary would have been hanging out in a small cave, but who am I to question the entire raison d'être of this monstrous church?) The upstairs, as well as the outside walls, are lined with dozens of murals of the Madonna and Child, each donated to the church by different countries around the world. I particularly like the mosaic donated by Japan, with a Japanese mother and baby.
Whereas the city of Nazareth has a slight majority of Christians, the City Council has a slight majority of Muslims. And, I'm told, the politics in Nazareth is split along those lines. So when the Muslims proposed building a grand mosque with six towering minarets on that piece of land next to the Basilica, the City Council approved it, and even allowed some of the city's property to be used for the new mosque.
Needless to say, that didn't sit too well with the Christians of Nazareth, but they found themselves unable to do anything about it. About a month ago, on the day that the first stone was laid, November 22, 1999, every Christian shrine in all of Israel and the Palestinian Territories closed its doors in protest.
We walked by this disputed area on our way back to the bus. The place was covered with inflammatory signs in Arabic, claiming that those trying to stop the construction of the mosque were attacking Islam. There was a huge tent set up, with lots of men inside, praying. As you probably know, this is Ramadan, the most holy month in the Islamic calendar. The tent was set up as a temporary mosque since, all of a sudden, this site has gotten so much attention as a sacred spot for Islam, and Muslims want to come to pray there.
p.s. - Please e-mail me at ...firstname.lastname@example.org
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