NAZARETH, Israel -- The main drag here is named Paul VI Street, and the narrow winding streets around it are dotted with convents, monasteries and souvenir stands selling Christian bric-a-brac. At the town center, the massive, modern Church of the Annunciation rises above Nazareth's sweets shops, jewelers and hummus stalls on the site where tradition holds that the angel Gabriel told the Virgin Mary she was pregnant.
For Christian pilgrims, Nazareth is sacred ground, and each year a million of them come to tour the city where Jesus grew up. The pope is expected next spring, and with him a millennial tourist boom that could triple the number of visitors to Nazareth and add a little zip to its usual shuffling pace.
But a smoldering dispute between Nazareth's Christian and Muslim residents is threatening to disrupt plans for the millennium and disfigure the town's placid exterior.
The argument involves a half-acre plot of land in the shadow of the church -- a paved-over patch barely the size of a city block. The city wants to build a public plaza there, but some Muslims favor building a huge mosque to rival the church. The fight is really about the town's identity, and whether tolerance and compromise have a future in Nazareth.
For years the two communities -- about 40,000 Muslims and 25,000 Christians -- have lived in easy harmony here. Both are Arab -- Nazareth is Israel's largest all-Arab town -- and each has seen its real adversaries as beyond the town boundaries in the country's Jewish majority.
On Easter Sunday all that changed, and Nazareth exploded in a stone-throwing brawl between roving bands of Christian and Muslim youths. Windshields were smashed, homes attacked and, a few days later, molotov cocktails were tossed at shops.
How the violence began is unclear. But for several hours, Israeli police stood back and watched, witnesses said.
"This is like fire," said the mayor, Ramez Jeraisi. "When it burns in one place it can spread to other places."
Jeraisi, a Christian, is at the heart of the conflict, although slightly stunned to be there. Sixteen months ago, as part of the town's $80 million face lift for its year 2000 celebrations, he ordered an old, abandoned school bulldozed from the half-acre plot below the church to make way for a public plaza.
Infuriated, a group of Muslims suspected the city wanted to duplicate St. Peter's Square on the plot. They took over the space, pitched an ungainly tent of corrugated tin walls and canvas sheets and anchored it with cinder blocks strung on ropes. They said the plot in question is sacred land -- the tomb of a revered Muslim scholar is in one corner -- and insisted a mosque be built there.
And not just any mosque, like the 10 others already scattered around Nazareth. This one would be a $20 million "central mosque" featuring four soaring spires, plus a central minaret with an elevator at its core rising more than 300 feet into the air and topped by a laser-lit crescent.
The structure, which would be built with financial help from Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states, would match the church and possibly overshadow it.
"The year 2000 doesn't just belong to the Christians," said Ahmad Zoubi, a member of the city council and an engineer who helped draft designs for the mosque. "It belongs to us, too. ... We Muslims also want to feel equal during these celebrations for 2000."
Although the Muslims say the plot is owned by an Islamic land trust, the city insists it is the property of the Israeli government. While the case is in court, the government has proposed several compromises -- a big mosque on a different site, a smaller mosque on the disputed plot.
But neither side trusts the Israeli government, and each suspects the ruling Likud party of using the controversy to divide the town's Arabs and angle for votes ahead of national elections next month.
Stirring his mint tea in a cafe across from the site, Zoubi grew agitated at the suggestion that a compromise might be possible. He noted that the town's Christians are a minority but have long controlled most of the shops and businesses. But the Islamic Movement recently won a majority of seats on the Nazareth town council on the strength of this controversy. In a democracy, he said, doesn't the majority rule?
"They have one of the biggest churches in the world," he declared, waving his hands and attracting startled glances from a group of Austrian tourists. "Why should they be angry if we build a mosque?"
Vatican officials have warned the Israeli government that the dispute could endanger the pope's plans to visit the Holy Land next spring. Discreetly, they have let it be known they oppose the construction of such a large mosque right next to the church.
In protest of the violence last week, churches in Nazareth shut their doors for two days. If the government approves plans to build the proposed mosque, church officials say, they will protest by shutting church doors all over the country.
To some Christians in Nazareth, the idea of a mosque by itself is no big deal. But the way the conflict has developed has sown hatred and suspicion here, some Christians say.
"Even if they built a 300-meter-high mosque it wouldn't bother me," said Nassim Mazzawi, 30, a jeweler whose shop is just up the street from the site. "What bothers me is that they want to steal this land, to force their will with stones."
Zoubi insisted the town's Christians and Muslims had always gotten along and would continue to do so. "Christian engineers are welcome to help us with the designs for the mosque," he said, smiling.
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