Islamic groups held a large militant march down the main streets of Nazareth this weekend, highlighting for some here the plight of Christians in this ancient city where Muslims have become a majority and members of the dwindling Christian population say they suffer regular intimidation.
Nazareth, considered one of the holiest cities for Christians, is described in the New Testament as the childhood home of Jesus. It contains multiple important shrines and churches, including the famous Church of the Basilica of the Annunciation, the site at which many Christians believe the Virgin Mary was visited by the Archangel Gabriel and told that she had been selected as the mother of Jesus.
The Islamic Movement, the main Muslim political party in Nazareth, said it organized yesterday's march to celebrate Eid al-Adha, or the Feast of the Sacrifice, which commemorates the Muslim belief Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son Ishmael for Allah.
Christian and Jewish faith dictates it was Isaac, not Ishmael, whom Abraham almost sacrificed.
Islamic Movement leaders paraded down Nazareth's main thoroughfare brandishing their party's green flag. Young Muslim men in battle gear marched and beat drums as a man on loudspeaker repeatedly exclaimed in Arabic, "Allah is great."
Hundreds of activists strutted screaming Islamist epithets, including "Islam is the only truth" and "Islam shall rule all."
Tens of thousands of Nazareth residents, seemingly mostly Muslim, congregated on the streets as the march passed by. Muslim children launched firecrackers into the sky, occasionally misfiring, with the small explosives landing dangerously close to the crowds.
Many of the town's Christian residents stayed away from the event, with the exception of Christian shopkeepers who worked in the area. WND observed as several Muslim youth marching in the parade started to charge at three local Christian shopkeepers but the youth stopped short.
While the march was billed as a celebration, it's militant virtues were clearly visible. The event seemed more a show of force than a street party.
"The march is meant to intimidate Christians," said Saleem, a Nazareth Christian resident who asked that his last name be withheld for fear of what he said was "Muslim retaliation" for speaking out.
"It's part of the methods used by the Muslims in very obvious ways to create an atmosphere where the Christians should know the Muslims are the main power and we are not welcome anymore," Saleem said.
Ahmed Zohbi, a member of Nazareth's municipal council and the leader of an umbrella group consisting of the city's Islamic parties, denied Saleem's accusations, claiming there is "no problem" between Christians and Muslims in Nazareth.
"We just want to celebrate. The Muslims have nothing against our Christian brothers. Our communities may have differences but we live a peaceful coexistence," Zohbi told WND.
'Muslims in the city want more dominance'
But Christians interviewed here said otherwise. Like Bethlehem's Christians, those in Nazareth spoke of attacks against Christian-owned shops and told stories of Christian women being raped by Muslim men. They noted several instances of interreligious violence and Muslim riots they said began when Muslims attacked Christian worshippers. The Muslims claimed Christians started the violence.
Israeli security officials say the majority of anti-Christian violence in Nazareth goes unreported because local Christians are too afraid to report crimes.
One Christian resident said violence and intimidation tend to increase around the time of local elections. The Islamic parties, once in the minority, are now one seat away from dominating Nazareth's city council.
"During the last elections, Muslims on the streets were openly threatening the Christians. They tried to stop some of the Christian cars from voting," said Saleem.
In October 2000, the Arab Christian mayor of Nazareth, Ramiz Jaraisy, was reportedly beaten by members of the opposing Islamist party.
Nazareth's Christian population, at times the majority during the city's long history, is now at about 37 percent, according to the Israeli Bureau of Statistics, which notes a regular downward trend.
The situation mirrors similar trends in West Bank and Gaza cities controlled or dominated by Muslim Arabs.
Siham el-Fahum, a Muslim Nazareth municipality member and a local historian, admits Christians are fleeing her city because of Christian-Muslim tension.
"There is no doubt the situation for Christians in Nazareth is bad," el-Fahum told WND.
"Christians like to live where life can be good for them, whereas Muslims are more attached to the community and will stay through tough times. Muslims in the city want more dominance and the only way to achieve that, logically, is at the expense of Christians. It's a delicate balancing act that is having negative consequences for Christians."
Like many Muslims here, el-Fahum claimed Christians several times "instigated" Muslim riots. But she said in the struggle for power, "the Muslims are definitely on the rise."
She said the core of the conflict began in 1998, when Israel approved a local Muslim request to build a mosque in front of the Church of the Annunciation.
'Situation is a powder keg'
Muslims wanted to build the mosque at an adjacent, 6,500-square-foot site, which they say is the burial place of a nephew of Saladin, the Muslim commander who led the army that defeated the Crusaders in 1187. The site previously housed a public school.
Christians charge the site was not previously considered holy by Muslims and that the planned mosque is meant to overwhelm the church.
Dave Parsons, a spokesman for the International Christian Embassy, said the proposed mosque might contain multiple spires that would tower over the Annunciation Church's large, black-coned dome.
In 2002, Israel rescinded permission to construct the mosque following worldwide outcry and protests from the Vatican and White House.
Nazareth Muslims temporarily occupied the site and erected a tent mosque. Islamic Movement leaders demanded Nazareth officials deed the property over to local Muslim authorities.
Muslims hold regular prayer services at the site neighboring the Annunciation church throughout the week, usually drawing large numbers of worshippers on Fridays.
Yesterday's afternoon service, attended by WND, was preceded by a sermon delivered by a prominent local sheik, who shouted into a loudspeaker, "Islam will dominate the world."
The sermon could be heard by clergy inside the Annunciation church.
The Islamic Movement's Zohbi told WND he is "optimistic" the mosque will eventually be built.
"It's just a matter of time before we (the Islamic parties) dominate the city council and then the situation will be different," he said.
Zohbi claimed the Muslim stake to the Nazareth site predates Christianity's. He said the Church of the Annunciation "was built in the 1950s."
While the church structure was indeed completely rebuilt in 1955, several previous churches there date back to the 5th century, about the same time the original Church of the Nativity was constructed in Bethlehem.
The original Annunciation church was destroyed during Muslim conquests. Reconstructed versions were burned during Crusader losses in the region. The church was rebuilt again in 1730, then later enlarged in 1877.
Archeologists say the first shrine at the church site was constructed in the middle of the 4th century, comprising an altar in the cave in which Mary is said to had lived.
Zohbi said he would only lead "peaceful" protests to build the mosque. Muslims in Nazareth have "no interest" in tensions or further violence with local Christians, he claimed.
But El-Fahum said it was only a matter of time before another round of anti-Christian riots was sparked.
"The tension is very palatable. The Christians know it. The situation is a powder keg that can explode again at any time."
Reprinted by permission of WorldNetDaily