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Catholic official warns of sectarian conflict from Nazareth mosque

The Holy Land's top Catholic clergyman has warned of possible sectarian strife if Muslims go ahead with the construction of a large mosque next to a major Christian shrine in Jesus' boyhood town.

Israel's previous government had given the Islamic Movement in Nazareth permission to construct a mosque next to the Basilica of the Annunciation, built on the spot where tradition says the Angel Gabriel foretold the birth of Jesus.

Construction crews have been digging a large pit outside the basilica in recent weeks, even though not all building permits have been issued.

Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah said last weekend that Israel's government supported the mosque construction for political reasons, but did not explain further.

Sabbah warned of possible sectarian strife over the mosque construction. During Easter 1999, the issue sparked street clashes between Muslim and Christian residents of the city of 70,000.

"There are some who want to inflame sectarianism," Sabbah told a news conference at the basilica. "My message to each and every Muslim and Christian is to be aware of such sectarianism and of the embers beneath the ashes."

The construction has gone ahead despite protests by the Vatican and by the 13 heads of the major Christian denominations in the Holy Land.