Pope brings calm to town marked by religious strife

In Nazareth, Christians, Muslims pray in peace

March 26, 2000|By John Rivera and Mark Matthews | John Rivera and Mark Matthews,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

NAZARETH, Israel -- Pope John Paul II enveloped Jesus' boyhood hometown in a festive embrace yesterday, seeming to override months of Christian-Muslim hostility and a huge show of force by police.

In a display of religious coexistence that could have gone dangerously awry, Pope John Paul led a Mass honoring the Virgin Mary inside a basilica steps from midday prayers by hundreds of Muslim men at an open-air mosque that has been the source of a bitter local dispute.

Fears of possible violence prompted Israeli authorities to seal off streets from traffic and flood them with police and border guards three hours before the pope arrived, giving downtown Nazareth the early-morning feel of an armed camp.

Well-dressed parishioners, many with delicate gold and silver crosses hanging from their necks, made their way past barricades through a maze of old market alleyways to secure a coveted seat inside the imposing Basilica of the Annunciation.

But by the time the Popemobile arrived, with the pope standing and lifting his left hand in brief waves, a crowd of thousands of well-wishers lining the route had transformed the atmosphere.

Cheers, whistles and shouts in English of "John Paul II, we love you" echoed against the stone walls as a marching band of Christian Scouts in khaki and green kept time with drums.

The enthusiasm followed the pope into the basilica, where crowds on either side reached to touch him and tug at his cassock.

People inside the church and in the streets spoke of the pope as a peacemaker.

"When he stops in this city, he makes peace with all the religions. It means there is going to be peace here," said Jule Kattura, 36, a house painter standing on the edge of a jammed sidewalk with his young son.

"It's very important for us. He's a peaceful person bringing peace -- and no politics," said Louis Abu Nassar, a parishioner from an old Nazareth family, as he waited to get inside the church.

Among the eclectic crowd of Latin and Greek Catholics, priests, Protestants and a Muslim cleric who attended the Mass was Nura Mansour, 40, a teacher from Haifa who is a Druse.

"I am here because this is a historic occasion. Maybe he can bring Christians and Muslims together. Maybe," she said.

Until yesterday, the town's recent history didn't offer much reason for hope.

For much of last year, Nazareth simmered -- on a couple of occasions violently -- over plans by local Muslims to erect a large mosque on a square, less than a block from the basilica, that the town's mayor had intended to turn into a plaza for Christian pilgrims in time for the year 2000.

Muslims, who say the site houses a historic martyr's grave, claimed it as an open-air mosque and political rallying point. Outraged Catholic clergymen became angrier when the Israeli government caved in to Muslim pressure and agreed to let them build the mosque.

Fears of a new confrontation in Israel's largest Arab town clouded preparations for the pope's visit, prompting urgent meetings between Israeli authorities and Muslim leaders and an agreement that would let the Muslims use part of the square to pray when Pope John Paul arrived.

The atmosphere wasn't helped by remarks yesterday of the chief Islamic cleric of the city, the mufti, that he was fed up with "the way Israel uses the Holocaust to win sympathy" and to avoid international censure for its behavior toward the Palestinians.

Sheik Ikrima Sabri, who is to meet with Pope John Paul II today, said he believed that the number of 6 million Holocaust victims is exaggerated. He said Israel demonstrated this week, when it "took even the pope" to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, that "it considers its pain more important than anyone else's."

"There have been many massacres in the world," said Sabri, 56. "Why is this Holocaust in particular more important?"

The words clashed starkly with the pope's message of reconciliation, and particularly his conclusive embrace this week of the enormity of the Holocaust. But the mufti, unlike the Palestinian political leaders, has not acceded to the pope's agenda here, which includes interfaith healing.

Close to the end of Pope John Paul's Mass, a loudspeaker carried a muezzin's call to prayer through the square and beyond as Muslim men wearing crocheted caps gathered to remove their shoes and kneel on a carpet of prayer rugs stretched over the concrete.

As the muezzin fell silent, the Scouts struck up anew with their boisterous drums and cheers for the pope, causing anger among some in the Muslim crowd. But the anxious moment passed.

"The pope is a universal leader, a leader for a lot of people in the world," said a Muslim, Saied Bakarni, a teacher and part-time student.

Abed Ghneim, a member of the local Waqf, the Muslim administrative organization, said, "We took the responsibility of preventing any provocation. If anyone behaves unusually, we are with the Israeli police on this issue." The Muslims had organized their own security team of men in green baseball caps.

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