Nazareth mayoral race divides city

Christians and Muslims point fingers at the other for disrupting the "unity" of the city.

nazareth elections 248 88 (photo credit: Brenda Gazzar)
nazareth elections 248 88
(photo credit: Brenda Gazzar)
For the first time in his life, restaurant owner Amer Salam Nassar decided he was not going to vote in Tuesday's municipal elections. The 51-year-old Nazareth man said he was boycotting the elections, because he felt that some were making the contest a race between Muslims and Christians rather than a political one. The residents of Nazareth went to the polls Tuesday to choose between Mayor Ramiz Jaraisy, a Christian communist from the Nazareth Democratic Front (Jabha/Hadash), and Ahmad Zoubi, an independent Muslim who ran on a unified list that includes representatives of the southern branch of the Islamic Movement. Jaraisy has been mayor of Nazareth for 14 years and his party has governed the city for the past 33 years. Zoubi has said it was time to usher in a new era of change. Each side has pointed fingers at the other for disrupting the "unity" of the city. But Nassar believes it was problematic that the United List was made up of entirely of Muslim candidates. "It shouldn't be Christian vs Muslim," said Nassar, who is Muslim. "On the United List, there are no Christians, and it is something that makes people feel that there is discrimination between Muslims and Christians." Today, about 70 percent of the city's residents are Muslim, while 30% are Christian, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics. Many residents say that relations between the two groups are usually quite good, though tensions have surfaced periodically within the last decade. Other residents argue that a one-religion list should not be considered problematic or unusual. "It doesn't mean that they will be extremist toward Christians, or that they will work against Christians; the opposite," said a confectioner named Anan, who asked that his last name not be used. "Islam is a religion of peace and equality. It's not a question of religion. The issue is that Jaraisy has held his post a long time and we prefer to try something else." But despite the debate, it is clear that many here are not voting according to religious lines. Nariman Mansour, who owns a women's accessories store, wears the Muslim veil and voted for all of the Democratic Front Candidates, including Jaraisy. "Since I was young, I have been a Democratic Front supporter," she said from her shop Tuesday afternoon. "All of us, my husband too." Before Jaraisy, the late Muslim poet Tawfik Ziad, also of the Democratic Front, served as mayor of the city and was well loved by both Christians and Muslims, she said. "In my opinion, there is no difference between Muslims and Christians because we live together," Mansour said. "The atmosphere is very nice here." Some residents, however, expressed fear that the election of Zoubi and large numbers from this United List could be bad for the city's Christians. One young woman, who identified herself only as Areen, said she feared that a victory for the United List could mean "the disappearance of the Christian community" in Nazareth. "All the time, right-wing Muslim extremists are trying to chase us from the city," the 21-year-old waitress and college student said.