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Churches in Holy Land Close To Protest Planned Mosque

By Tracy Wilkinson and Rebecca Trounson
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- NAZARETH, Israel

Churches across the Holy Land closed their doors Monday in protest over an Israeli government decision allowing Muslims to build a mosque near a revered Christian shrine in this biblical city.

The protest, coming in the very birthplace of Christianity and on the eve of its millennial celebration, jolted the delicate balance of religious coexistence in this region and disappointed scores of pilgrims and tourists.

At the heart of the dispute is concern among the Christian minority here that its numbers are dwindling, and that the survival of its community and status are under threat.

“We do not like what we did, but in such a case we had to,” Father Nourhan Manougian, grand sacristan of the Armenian Patriarchate in Jerusalem, said of the protest, which will continue Tuesday. “What the government did is not right. Today it’s Nazareth, tomorrow it’s somewhere else. We are thinking, who’s next?”

Christian leaders including the Vatican and American Catholic bishops joined to express anger over Israel’s granting of a Muslim request to build a mosque alongside Nazareth’s Church of the Annunciation, the site where Christian tradition holds that the Angel Gabriel told Mary she would give birth to Jesus.

Israel said its decision was the best possible compromise, since Muslims also stake a historical claim to the land.

The Church of the Annunciation was one of scores of Christian sites that were closed Monday. About 100 yards away, bulldozers cleared earth in preparation for the ceremonial laying of the mosque cornerstone, scheduled for later Tuesday.

In Jerusalem, tourists from the United States, Argentina, Ireland and elsewhere milled about in the stone plaza in front of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the site where many Christians believe Jesus was crucified and buried. Some caressed the heavy wood doors through which they could not pass, and posed for pictures.

Like many pilgrims who make the Church of the Holy Sepulcher their most cherished destination, members of the U.S. group hauled a huge wooden cross on their backs, stopping at each of the “stations of the cross” that depict what they believe to be Jesus’ final path along the Old City’s Via Dolorosa, and ending up in the church plaza.

“We came from very far, with great sacrifice and with enormous hope and faith,” moaned Frances Gurdian, from Corona, Calif. “This is disastrous! Our faith has nothing to do with governments and politics.”

Other pilgrims were supportive of the closures. “I am deeply disappointed, but someone had to take a stand,” said Roger Power of Kern, Ireland.