Journalists visiting the city saw two large banners--one in English, one in Arabic--hanging in the plaza in front of the Basilica of the Annunciation, with a verse from the Koran (112:1-4) contradicting the New Testament proclamation that Jesus is the “only begotten” of God.
“In the name of Allah, the most beneficent, the most merciful, Say (O Muhammad): He is Allah, (the) One and Only. Allah, the Eternal, the Absolute. He begetteth not, nor was begotten, and there is none like unto him,” the banner reads.
Nazareth Mayor Ramiz Jaraisy played down concerns that a banner effectively denying Jesus’ deity was provocative to Christians, although he did question its position, in front of Nazareth’s most prominent landmark.
“I don’t think that it’s provocative against anyone,” he said. “My point of view [is] that it’s not the right place to put it and it’s not the right way to do that.”
But Jaraisy said he would not remove the banner because some Islamic fundamentalist groups were looking to provoke a confrontation in order to promote their cause. He did not want to provide them with that opportunity.
Situated in northern Israel, Nazareth is the largest Arab city in Israel. It also has one of the highest concentrations of Christians here.
Although Jesus was born in Bethlehem, Christian residents of Nazareth are proud to point out Christianity’s roots in their town.
Mary, a Jewish virgin, lived in Nazareth when the angel Gabriel appeared and told her she would give birth to the promised Jewish Messiah and call his name Jesus. He would be God-incarnate, the Bible says. After Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, he grew up in Nazareth.
The Basilica was built over a small grotto which, according to Catholic tradition, marks the remains of Mary’s house.
(Another Koranic verse, 4:171, declares in part: “Allah is only one God; far be it from his glory that he should have a son.”)
Jaraisy said there were good relations and respect between Christian and Muslim inhabitants of Nazareth, and offered himself as proof. Born into a Christian family, Jaraisy has been elected mayor of the city three times, despite the fact that 70 percent of the city’s 60,000 residents are Muslim.
A decade ago there was trouble in the city after the municipality decided to demolish a school in front of the Basilica and build a large plaza to accommodate Christian pilgrims visiting Nazareth. But Muslims, inspired by fundamentalists, erected a large protest tent, saying that an Islamic sage had once been buried there.
The Israeli government eventually granted the Muslims the right to build a mosque at the site – upsetting the Vatican and Christians around the world.
According to Wadi Abunassar, an Arab Catholic and political scientist, the issue was resolved only after President Bush telephoned then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon urging a solution. The mosque was never built at the location and tensions eased.
Abunassar said the fact that Islamists were defeated in recent municipal elections although Nazareth has a Muslim majority indicates that “a large portion” of the Muslims are not necessarily anti-Christian.
Removing the banner would would present a “serious political problem,” he said. Legally, the municipality should take it down but would not dare do so because it could provoke clashes between adherents of the two faiths. The state could order its removal for security reasons, however, he said. He wondered why the authorities had not done so.
Abunassar said the best way to deal with the situation would be to simply ignore the provocations of the extremists and build relations with moderate Muslims.
Abunassar said the 110,000 Arab Christians living in Israel – excluding those who live in Jerusalem, which remains disputed – exist in a “complicated reality.” While ethnic Arabs they are not Muslims and they live in a predominantly Jewish state.
During the Israel-Hezbollah war in 2006, he recalled, Christian Arabs were among those killed in Hezbollah rocket attacks on Israel. Abunasser said he lost students who were Israeli soldiers fighting in the war, and had also lost relatives living in Lebanon.
Internally, the Christian community is made up of some 20 different churches and sects, as well as different political streams. There is no real unity in terms of church leadership, Abunassar said.
Despite its Muslim majority, Christmas is an official holiday in Nazareth with offices and schools closed, although Jaraisy said some shops remain open. Santas, Christmas trees and other decorations adorned some of the shop windows in town this week.
A Muslim worker at the municipality said she would be celebrating Christmas alongside the Christians in the city, as other Muslim residents do.
Israel’s Tourism Ministry and the Nazareth Municipality will host a reception for the heads of the churches and mayors of Jewish, Christian and Muslim towns and villages in the area.
The Tourism Ministry said the reception would be held at the Basilica of the Annunciation on Christmas Eve, followed by a traditional Christmas mass.