Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Christians around the world are banding together to call on the Israeli government to stop the construction of a mosque next to the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, which they say is both illegal and is destroying Jewish and Christian antiquities, leaders of an international group said Thursday.
The International Coalition for Nazareth, a broad coalition of diverse Christian churches and ministries worldwide, said it is not opposing Islam or the building of mosques, but is opposing to what it called the "provocative placement of a mosque in the shadow of the Basilica."
The Catholic Basilica, the largest church in the Middle East, marks the site where tradition says that the Angel Gabriel spoke to Mary, the mother of Jesus, and told her she would bear the Christ child.
"The progress made so far by certain Muslim authorities towards erecting this mosque was achieved by intimidation and the promotion of questionable claims," said Rev. Ray Lockhart, spokesman for the ICN.
"In addition, the vacant plot where the mosque would be located has already become a rallying point for radical Muslim elements seeking to harass the local Christian community as well as pilgrims from abroad, and to offend our deeply held religious beliefs," Lockhart said at a press conference in Jerusalem Thursday.
"If allowed to proceed, we are convinced this mosque will be an intolerable friction point between our faiths for years to come," he added.
Christians in Israel's largest Arab town have been attacked several times by the members of the radical Islamic faction. Until recently, residents of the town with its Muslim majority and large Christian minority have lived together in harmony.
The 2,000-square-meter plot in question was slated four years ago to become a plaza for Christian pilgrims visiting the church, but radicals from the Islamic Movement erected a protest tent and claimed an Islamic sage was buried there.
Two years later, the Israeli government decided that Muslims in Nazareth, Jesus' boyhood town, could build a mosque on the corner of the plot. Critics argued that the move was politically rather than legally motivated.
The decision angered church leaders worldwide and prompted Pope John Paul II to threaten to cancel his historic millennium pilgrimage to the Holy Land because of the dispute.
Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat even called for the mosque not to be constructed on the site.
In March, the pontiff called President Bush to ask him to raise the issue with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, on the Israeli leader's first visit to Washington after being elected. Sharon said he would look into the matter.
Last month, without proper permits, construction began on the mosque with the digging of a 50-foot-deep hole, prompting a renewed uproar.
In a letter to Sharon last week, the coalition appealed for a halt to the building due to what it termed "numerous, legal irregularities."
Among the complaints, the coalition charged that the Israel Lands Authority had transferred the property to the Wakf, Islamic religious authorities, "without due process and not in an open, lawful manner."
According to committee member Rev. Charles Kopp, the committee has not received a written response to the letter. But last Friday, a day after the letter was delivered, the construction was halted.
Foreign Ministry spokesman, Noam Katz, said the construction had been temporarily halted only until the Muslims will go through the proper "planning procedures."
According to the coalition, the digging is also destroying archeological artifacts and human remains from the time of Jesus.
Archeologist, Father Michele Piccirillo, of the Franciscan Archeological Institute in Jerusalem's Old City, said that bones and at least three pieces of columns had been found during the excavations.
But Wakf officials claim no artifacts have been discovered.
Professor Rafi Israeli, whose book on the dispute in Nazareth is due to be published soon, said that there is more at stake than just the holy site.
Israeli, was asked to be on a four-man governmental committee several years ago, investigating the Muslim-Christian dispute in the area. According to Israeli, he was the one dissenting voice on the committee, advising the government not to allow the construction of the mosque.
First, Israeli said, by allowing the construction of the mosque, it will reward the people who broke the law. It will create an "unnecessary rift with Christians worldwide" and the Muslims in the end will not appreciate the sacrifice.
It will also contribute to the demise of the Christian community of Israel, he said. Nazareth has the largest Christian community in Israel.
Christian communities throughout the Middle East have been in a serious decline during the last century, as many have emigrated westward, fleeing religious persecution and economic hardships.
Despite the government's earlier decision, several government ministers are said to oppose the construction of the mosque.