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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Clashes Reveal Tensions In Land of Christ's Birth

NAZARETH, Israel -- Distraught Christians closed churches in Jesus' boyhood town Tuesday and some, armed with clubs, patrolled streets in response to weekend clashes with Moslems.

Two days after the outbreak of sectarian violence, the town of 42,000 Moslems and 18,000 Christians was still simmering with fear and suspicion.

In the predominantly Christian neighborhood of Al Mutran, dozens of young men stood guard outside a small chapel, St. Mary's, at nightfall Monday. A car driven by a Moslem was pelted with stones in Al Mutran after some claimed the driver had hurled insults against Jesus at those patrolling the neighborhood. A priest in a long blue robe shook his head dejectedly and pleaded with the young men over a loudspeaker to hold back, with some success.

On Tuesday, disappointed tourists visiting Nazareth's major attraction f the Basilica of the Annunciation, where tradition says the Angel Gabriel told Mary she was pregnant f found locked gates, with a notice posted on the doors in English explaining that this was an act of protest against assaults on Christians.

With the millennium only nine months away, the Christian-Moslem tensions are hurting plans by the Israeli government to turn Nazareth into a showcase for pilgrims now that Bethlehem, Jesus' traditional birthplace, is under full Palestinian control.

At the core of the dispute is a half-acre plot next to the Church of the Annunciation. The Christian mayor, Ramez Jeraisi, wants to build a Venetian-style plaza for millennium pilgrims there, and the project has the backing of the Israeli government.

However, Moslems say the land belongs to the Islamic Trust, or Waqf, and demand that a large mosque be built on the site. The dispute is in the courts and the plaza is on hold.

Moslem activists erected a protest tent at the site in December 1997 and have been holding prayers and rallies there ever since.

Nazareth long prided itself in its tolerance and co-existence between followers of the two religions. However, many Moslems complain that even though they constitute a majority, they have not been adequately represented and that Christians have dominated the town's affairs. For many Moslems, the mosque has become a rallying cry for better opportunities.

Violence erupted on Easter Sunday, with the two sides accusing each other of having started the taunting and stoning attacks. By the end of the day, a dozen people were injured in street clashes. The windows of dozens of cars owned by Christians had been smashed.

On Monday, Moslem activists enforced a commercial strike, and the Haaretz daily said it received calls from several Christian merchants who said they were warned that if they didn't close their stores their property would be damaged.

"An atmosphere of fear has been created," read a statement signed by the patriarchs of Jerusalem who ordered the closure of all churches in Nazareth on Tuesdayand Wednesday.

In one mixed neighborhood, Yvette Aboud, a Christian, said she was taken aback by the sudden tension, noting that relations with Moslem neighbors had always been warm.

"We want to live here in peace," Mrs. Aboud said, "not how we have been in the last few days."