Muslims Cool to Pope's Holy Land Pilgrimage

April 29, 2009 - 5:22 AM
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Nazareth, Israel (AP) - A banner across the main square in Jesus' boyhood town condemns those who insult Islam's Prophet Muhammad -- a message by Muslim hard-liners for Pope Benedict XVI during his pilgrimage to the Holy Land next month.
 
The pontiff may have to tread carefully with his visit to Nazareth. Many Muslims are still angry over a 2006 speech in which Benedict quoted a medieval text depicting the prophet as violent.
 
Even some Christians are nervous that Benedict could stir up trouble for them. They worry that if he says anything contentious about Islam again, Muslims might lash out.
 
"He must know that every word he will utter will have an impact on Christian Palestinians and religious relations," said Naim Ateek, an Anglican reverend and director of Sabeel, an ecumenical Palestinian Christian group that includes Catholics.
 
The banner was put up by followers of Nazem Abu Salim, a radical Muslim preacher, right next to the Church of the Annunciation, where tradition says the Angel Gabriel told Mary she would give birth to Jesus.
 
It is there for the pope, Abu Salim said. "He is not welcome here."
 
The banner -- clearly visible from the church, which Benedict is to visit -- trumpets a verse from the Quran declaring, "Those who harm God and His Messenger -- God has cursed them in this world and in the hereafter, and has prepared for them a humiliating punishment."
 
Municipal official Suheil Diab wouldn't say if the banner, along with a small sign in English with the verse, would be removed before the pope arrives May 14.
 
Benedict plans to meet with Muslim leaders, though not Abu Salim, throughout his May 8-15 tour of the Holy Land, which includes stops in Jordan, the West Bank, Jerusalem and Nazareth, one of Israel's largest Arab cities.
 
Islamic leaders in Israel are divided over the visit.
 
One of the leading Muslim groups in Israel, the Northern Islamic Movement, is calling for a boycott of meetings unless Benedict apologizes for his 2006 remarks, said a spokesman, Zahi Nujeidat. The movement, which has not been invited to meet with the pontiff, can marshal thousands of supporters, but has not yet decided whether to stage protests.
 
Other Muslim clerics said they would sit down with Benedict but ask for an apology. One of those is Sheik Taysir Tamimi, a leading cleric in the Palestinian Authority, which has welcomed the pope's trip.
 
Muslims are a growing and increasingly assertive majority in Nazareth, which is 70 percent Muslim but has a communist mayor from the city's Christian community.
 
A decade ago, brawls erupted over Muslim attempts to build a mosque beside the Church of the Annunciation. The project was eventually thwarted. What remains is a stone-paved square and a small mosque, headed by Abu Salim.
 
Nazareth is one of the main cities for Israel's Arab minority, who make up around 20 percent of the country's 7 million people. Christians number around 120,000 of the Arab community, roughly half Catholic, half Eastern Orthodox.
 
Benedict's 2006 speech citing obscure medieval text that characterized some of Muhammad's teachings as "evil and inhuman" sparked protests in the West Bank and Gaza -- though not in Israel. Attackers fired guns and threw firebombs at Palestinian churches.
 
Benedict later said the text did not reflect his views, but many Muslims believe he did not apologize properly.
 
In Nazareth, the pontiff is to visit the Church of the Annunciation, host an interfaith discussion and meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He'll also celebrate Mass on nearby Mount Precipice, where many Christians believe a mob pursued Jesus and tried to throw him from a cliff.
 
The pope will strive to improve interfaith relations throughout his tour, said Wadi Abunassar, a spokesman for the pontiff's visit.
 
Nazareth's local government has set aside $5 million to spruce up the crowded, shabby city overlooking the Galilee hills, hoping the papal visit will boost tourism, Mayor Ramiz Jaraisy said.
 
Few in Nazareth's bazaar show any excitement, however. Many remain bitter over Israel's offensive in Gaza against Hamas militants, which killed more than 1,000 Palestinians in December and January.
 
"People here are tired and exhausted from this situation," said Amin Ali, 72, an antique seller who described himself as a secular Muslim. "And nobody likes this pope, anyway."
 
Benedict should use his visit to censure Israel over Gaza and the lack of progress in reaching peace with the Palestinians, said Ateek, the Anglican reverend.
 
"If the pope is brave enough to do that, people will respect him more," Ateek said.