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Middle East Abeja Dispatch

Nazareth: Trouble Brewing in Jesus' Hometown
December 22, 1999

There is a story I was told over and over again, when I was young, around this time of year, about the birth of a child. I even got to act it out in front of my church. Sometimes I was a lamb, or a shepherd with a painted-on beard. Once, I even got to be the Angel Gabriel! Some call it a myth, some call it a parable, and some call it the word of God. Whatever it is, it sure is an important story to many, many people in the world today.

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.

Vocabulary Box

parable - a simple story that illustrates a moral or religious lesson
grotto - cave
persecution - oppression or harassment because of race, religion, sexual orientation, or beliefs
minaret - a tall, skinny tower on a mosque, that has one or more projecting balconies
bone of contention -the subject of a dispute
vantage point - a position that gives you a broad overall view or perspective
aesthetics - artistically beautiful or pleasing appearance
raison d'être - French for "reason for existing"
mosaic - a picture or decorative design made up of small colored pieces of stone or tile
inflammatory - arousing passion or strong emotion, especially anger
Nazareth and Bethlehem, the two main towns in the story of the birth of Jesus, still exist today, and I just got to visit them both! I'm not going to tell you the first story, of the birth of the baby, because I bet you can find it somewhere else. Instead, I'm going to tell you the stories of today, which flash in and out of the news, but are always changing! One is a story of hope, and the other, sadly, is one of conflict.

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!

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Modern-day Nazareth is gearing up for millenium festivities!
But who are the people of Nazareth, anyway? In biblical times, Nazareth was a Jewish city, where Mary and Joseph, the parents of Jesus, lived. It was there that the Angel Gabriel is said to have come to the Virgin Mary and told her that she was going to give birth to the son of God. It's also where Jesus lived for most of his life. The Basilica of the Annunciation is a huge church that marks the grotto where Mary lived and where she was visited by Gabriel. (Wonder how they know that? Check my mom's article!) Among the many other small churches there today is one marking where Joseph's carpenter shop was and one marking the synagogue where Jesus studied!

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.

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The Basilica of the Annunciation is Nazareth's biggest attraction
Our bus dropped us off by a souvenir shop near the Basilica of the Annunciation. "Isn't it funny how tourist attractions are always built near souvenir shops?" our guide joked. But if souvenir shops were all that was being built near the Basilica, there would be a lot fewer problems in Nazareth today! A more relevant, but less humorous, question might be "Isn't it funny how mosques always seem to be built next to important Christian and Jewish monuments?"

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.

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larger view
An outside door at the Basilica
The Basilica of the Annunciation is currently the biggest, most obvious landmark in Nazareth. It is easy to spot, nestled on the hillside, from most vantage points. As a matter of fact, our guide told us that it is the largest Christian church in the Holy Land. It's also pretty new-- it was finished in 1969, on the same spot where at least four other churches had been built, dating back to the 3rd century!

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.

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larger view
This beautiful mosaic was donated to the Basilica by Japan
But, despite the peaceful cooperation of so many countries in creating this new Basilica, trouble is brewing in Jesus' hometown. It hit the news big about a month ago, while we were still in Egypt. You see, right next to the Basilica is a big open area, belonging in part to the City of Nazareth, and in part to WAKF, the Islamic group that cares for Islamic holy sites. It seems that this little public area, which has been used for centuries by Christian pilgrims as a place to rest and even camp while visiting the Grotto of the Annunciation, is also the tomb of a Muslim saint from the Middle Ages.

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.

Related Links

To learn more about modern-day Nazareth, check out the city's official website at

For now, you can still see the top of the Basilica of the Annunciation, whether you like it or not. Soon, it may be hidden from view by another place of worship, to the same God, but through a different messenger. You know, both the Christians and the Muslims believe in Jesus and his teachings. You would think that maybe they had learned something about getting along, wouldn't you?


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

Abeja - Bethlehem: May the Millennium Bring Peace
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Christine - A Little Town Called Bethlehem
Nancy - St. Helena Hits the Spot
Kavitha - The Facts of Fasts
Team - The New Millennium: All Dressed Up and Nowhere To Go
Kavitha - Tidings of Comfort and JoyŠand Exploitation: The Buck Stops With You

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