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Nazareth Muslims Enforce Strike

April 5, 1999

NAZARETH, Israel (AP) _ Muslims demanded the resignation of Nazareth’s Christian mayor on Monday, a day after sectarian clashes in the town of Jesus’ boyhood disrupted its long-standing record of religious tolerance.

As calls to prayer sounded over mosque loudspeakers, 300 Muslim demonstrators waved green flags of the Islamic movement, vowing to build a large mosque on a site they claim as their own.

Nazareth had long prided itself on its religious tolerance, but growing tensions in recent months between Muslims and Christians exploded on Easter Sunday over plans for a site for millennium pilgrims.

A dozen people were injured, 30 cars were damaged and 11 people arrested during the confrontations.

The government wants to build a plaza for the pilgrims at the site near the Church of the Annunciation, where Roman Catholic tradition says the Angel Gabriel first appeared before Mary, the mother of Jesus, and told her she was pregnant.

Pilgrims who made their way to the church Monday passed through a tense corridor where Muslims were demonstrating. Some 150 Israeli police stood nearby in riot gear. The downtown area was deserted as shopkeepers complied with a strike called by the Islamic movement.

Members of the local Christian minority, which once dominated this mostly Arab town of 60,000 in northern Israel, said they are increasingly concerned for their safety.

``I am afraid for my daughters, I am not letting them leave the house,″ said Yvette Aboud, a Christian mother of six girls.

The violence threatened plans by the Israeli government to showcase Nazareth as a major Christian attraction for millennial pilgrims now that Bethlehem is under Palestinian control.

Ahmed Zoubi, a deputy mayor and member of the Islamic Party, said he was trying to work out a deal to construct the mosque on stilts above the plaza. But Christian leaders insist the courts must decide the matter.

Zoubi said the municipality must give in to Muslim demands, arguing that the land earmarked for the plaza belongs to the Islamic Trust, or Waqf.

Israel’s advisor on Arab affairs was dispatched to Nazareth to help mediate a solution, and the government said it hoped the fighting would not hamper plans for millions of expected tourists.

But after mounting tensions and violent outbursts, residents sounded less optimistic.

``We Christians and Muslims live together, we are neighbors,″ said Kaid Aboud, Yvette Aboud’s husband. ``Suddenly it’s become Christians against Muslims. How did we get to this?″

After municipal elections in November, snags arose over ambitious plans to give the city a facelift for the millennium.

The Islamic movement won a majority on the city council for the first time and the Christian mayor, Ramez Jeraisi, was barely re-elected.