October 29, 1999
The Honorable William J. Clinton
President of the United States
The White House
Washington, DC 20500
Dear Mr. President:
I write you with great concern over recent and impending developments in the Israeli city of Nazareth regarding the treatment of Christians and the building of a mosque adjacent to the Basilica of the Annunciation.
In 1997, radical Islamic protesters occupied land adjacent to the Basilica demanding that it become the site for a new mosque. Their claim to the land was based on allegations that it was Islamic Trust or "Waqf" land. The protesters pursued their claim through the Israeli judicial system. Recently, an Israeli court denied the claim, ruling that the property is state land. Despite this judgment, an Israeli inter-ministerial committee acceded to the protesters' demands and approved the building of a mosque.
We are told that many moderate Muslim officials and Arab leaders in the region, including Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, oppose the militants' demands, and their reservations bolster our sense that we ought to approach you on this issue.
Sadly, the protests have been accompanied by anti-Christian violence in which the police have sometimes failed to provide adequate protection. Just last week the Christian mayor of Nazareth was beaten by Islamist protestors. These incidents, coupled with the granting of permission for construction, make the government's approval of this project a very troubling development. Indeed, the government's acquiescence to these demands of has only exacerbated a feeling of extreme vulnerability by the indigenous Christian population. It has also raised real concerns about the Israeli government's capacity to provide adequate protection and access to Holy Places and to safeguard the rights of religious minorities in the Holy Land. Insofar as the decision responds to extremist demands, it will encourage Christians to emigrate from Israel and continue to threaten the viability of the Christian community in the Holy Land.
Clearly, the Christian minority in Nazareth is fearful that the building of the mosque will only worsen their already insecure place in the community. We ask that during your upcoming visit to Oslo, you express United States concern over developments in Nazareth, and ask Prime Minister Barak to consider the impact of recent actions on Israel's credibility in serving as a guardian of the Holy Places and protector of religious minorities.
Begging God's blessing on the Mideast peace process, and with prayerful good wishes for the success of your mission to Oslo, I remain
Joseph A. Fiorenza
Bishop of Galveston-Houston