Nazareth split over pope's visit

Tourism, peace hopes vie with calls for pontiff to stay away.

pope easter 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
pope easter 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
Many in Nazareth are welcoming Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Israel and the West Bank next month, which they anticipate will attract additional pilgrims and tourists, and perhaps even help calm this often tense region. "I accept all religions," said Tawfik Awad, a parking attendant who is Muslim. "All of us are born in nine months. God created us all... When a man of religion comes and brings peace, we welcome him with our hearts." Yolanda Tabri, a Christian, said the Benedict's visit would help create a positive atmosphere and even "increase the holiness of Nazareth," where the pope will lead the largest of three masses on May 14. But some residents of this town - where the once majority Christians now make up roughly 35 percent of the population - have mixed feelings. Others have come out adamantly against the visit. Sheikh Nazim Abu Salim, the fiery, long-bearded imam of the Shihab-e-Din Mosque in downtown Nazareth, has a long list of reasons for his opposition to the May 11-15 visit. The pope, he said, "declared his war on Islam" and "defamed the prophet... and the nation of Islam" when he quoted a medieval text about the Prophet Muhammad and holy wars during a lecture at a German university in 2006. "We cannot accept whoever insults the prophet," Abu Salim told The Jerusalem Post this week after an evening prayer. Second, despite former US president George W. Bush having declared "a crusader war against the Islamic world" and waging bloody wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the pope went to America and blessed it, Abu Salim said. In addition, "The blood shed from [Israel's recent Gaza offensive] has still not dried," and yet the pope was visiting the government of Israel and its ministers, he said. Salim said he was also against the pope's visit to the Western Wall, known as the Buraq wall to Muslims, which he considers "an inseparable part" of the Aksa Mosque. "He is legitimizing the occupation of the blessed al-Aksa," Salim said. "Muslims must prevent him [from entering al-Aksa] just as we prevented (far-right activist Baruch] Marzel from entering Umm el-Fahm" to supervise a polling station in February, Abu Salim said. Due to security concerns, police prevented Marzel from entering the city. Contrary to previous media reports, the pope is not scheduled to visit the Aksa Mosque, but is to visit the nearby Dome of the Rock. When asked about the potential for violence, Abu Salim said, "We don't have the power to control people... We can't prevent people from expressing how they feel or the manner in which they express it." The solution, he said, was for the pope not to come at all. Another Muslim man, who was waiting for the evening prayer and identified himself only a 60-year-old "sheikh" with seven children, said, "We welcome the whole world to Nazareth, except the pope, because he insulted the prophet Muhammad, the most noble of prophets." "The prophet is nobler than any pope," the man exclaimed to a round of applause from other worshipers. Mayor Ramiz Jaraisy, a Christian who is serving his third term in the city, told the Post earlier this month that the pope had said "the wrong thing," but noted that he later explained that he didn't himself agree with what he quoted. The mistake should not be held against him forever, Jaraisy said. "He's a human being and in the end, mistakes can be corrected." The pope aimed to create an atmosphere of coexistence between religions and his message here would be one of dialogue, Jaraisy said. "He will be calling for a better life for human beings who were created in God's image," he said. During his 2006 lecture in Germany, the pope reportedly quoted the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus, who said: "Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhumane, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached." Following an eruption of anger and violence in Muslim nations, the pope apologized, saying he was "deeply sorry for the reactions in some countries" to the passages in his lecture and that the quote he cited "does not in any way express my personal thought." He said he cited the text as an examination of the relationship between faith and reason. Talib Nassar, who owns a downtown Nazareth shwarama and kebab restaurant, said Benedict's visit would be very good for the country because it would show tourists it was safe to visit. But Nassar, a Muslim, also said the pope should have refused to come to Israel after the IDF's Gaza offensive and after a Channel 10 talk show in February poked fun at Jesus and Mary, who are also revered in Islam. The Vatican filed an official complaint about the "blasphemous" program with the government, which apologized. "I'm happier more than I am upset" about his visit, Nassar added. "We want [the pope] to bring a message to the State of Israel, calling for complete peace in Israel, with the Palestinians and with Israel's neighboring countries."