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Israel stops construction of large mosque

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JERUSALEM — Israel decided Wednesday to halt construction on a large mosque that sits next to the main Christian shrine in Nazareth, the town of Jesus' boyhood, an Israel official said. The project had angered Christian groups worldwide — including the Vatican — who said it is disrespectful to Christians.

The decision by Israel's security Cabinet was likely to anger Muslims, and police in Nazareth, a town of 70,000 in northern Israel, were braced for angry protests. The mosque has become a symbol of growing political aspirations of the more than 1 million Muslim citizens of Israel, who make up some one-sixth of the population.

Salman Abu Ahmed, the leader of the Islamic Movement in Nazareth, said the government order was "irresponsible" and said construction would proceed.

The mosque construction began several weeks ago, just outside the Basilica of the Annunciation, the largest church in the Middle East, which is built on the spot where tradition says the Angel Gabriel foretold the birth of Jesus. The foundation of the mosque has been completed, and concrete pillars have been erected.

Israel's handling of the Muslim-Christian dispute drew fire from Christian leaders, who protested the mosque construction, which was approved by earlier Israeli governments, and made repeated appeals to Israeli officials to step in.

At one point, all churches in the Holy Land were closed in protest for two days. Pope John Paul II threatened to cancel a millennium visit to the Holy Land over the issue, and the Vatican said in November that construction of the mosque would "put this holy place in a permanent state of siege."

During Easter 1999, the issue sparked street clashes between Muslim and Christian residents of the city of 70,000.

An Israeli government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the security Cabinet decided Wednesday to halt the construction immediately. Cabinet ministers were asked to find an alternate site for the mosque in Nazareth within two weeks, the official said.

Observers of the dispute have said both left and right-wing governments exploited the situation in a bid to woo Israel's Arab community and win votes. The vast majority of Israel's more than 1 million Arab citizens are Muslims.

The construction plan has drawn criticism from the international community as well.

President Bush has raised the subject with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon who pledged to try to resolve the dispute.

Muslims say beneath the site is the grave of Shahib al-Din — a nephew of Saladin, the Muslim commander who led an army in defeating the Crusaders in 1187. It had been used in the past as a place for Muslim prayers, a Muslim school and Muslim-owned shops.