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Pope criticised in Nazareth mosque controversy

An Islamic leader yesterday accused Pope John Paul II and other top clergy of meddling in a dispute over the building of a mosque near a major Christian shrine in Nazareth.

Israel's security Cabinet decided on Wednesday to halt construction at the site, which sits next to the largest church in the Middle East. The building of the mosque has angered Christians, and Israel's decision -- in line with a previous injunction by a local court -- was an apparent effort to lower tensions with the Christian world.

Christian tradition says the Basilica of the Annunciation marks the spot where the Angel Gabriel foretold the birth of Jesus. Muslims say a Muslim sage is buried at the site.

Christian leaders all the way up to the Vatican have said building a mosque so close to a major Christian shrine is disrespectful, and Christians stepped up protests after construction began several weeks ago.

Salman Abu Ahmed, leader of the Islamic Movement in Nazareth, accused Christian leaders including the pope and the top Roman Catholic clergyman in the Holy Land, Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah, of exerting pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

On Thursday, about two dozen people walked around the construction site. Some hammered wooden boards and hosed down steps, but there were no signs of large-scale construction. Building is still in the early stage, with just a foundation having been poured.