Pope to get mixed welcome from Nazareth’s Muslims

13th May 2009, Comments 0 comments

Benedict stirred widespread criticism in the Muslim world in 2006 after he quoted a medieval Christian emperor who criticised some teachings of the Prophet Mohammed as "evil and inhuman."

Nazareth – The streets of Nazareth are decked with flags to welcome Pope Benedict XVI, but some Muslims in the boyhood town of Jesus are still simmering over a row sparked by the pontiff three years ago.

Just a few metres from the Basilica of Annunciation, where the pope will pray during his visit to Nazareth on Thursday, a banner proclaims the Koranic verse: "Mohammed is the apostle of Allah and those with him are firm of heart against the unbelievers."

The sign was put up by members of the radical Ansar Allah group. "We do not forgive the pope his insults against Islam, even if he apologises," said Bilal Abu Nashin, a muezzin who is a member of the small movement.

Benedict stirred widespread criticism in the Muslim world in 2006 after he quoted a medieval Christian emperor who criticised some teachings of the Prophet Mohammed as "evil and inhuman".

Some Muslim leaders have called on the pontiff to apologise anew for the remarks during his eight-day Holy Land tour that began in Jordan on 8 May.

Ansar Allah leader Nizam Abu Salim claims the German-born pope "unleashed a crusade against Muslims".

He also sharply lashed out at the pope for his planned meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the basilica on Thursday.

The meeting will take place on the eve of the 61st anniversary of the Naqba – catastrophe – as Palestinians call the creation of the state of Israel, which led to 700,000 Palestinians being driven out or fleeing their homes.

Ansar Allah, which plastered posters claiming the pope is not welcome in Nazareth, demanded the construction of a mosque next to the basilica which was built at the site where Christians believe the Archangel Gabriel told the Virgin Mary she would conceive the son of God.

Every Friday, hundreds of Muslims attend prayers organised by the group outside the basilica.

But the prayer leader at Al-Salam mosque, the city's largest which draws a crowd of 1,500 every Friday, insisted the majority of Nazareth's Muslims do not share Ansar Allah's views.

"Nazareth and its population are welcoming," said Diyaa Abu Ahmad. "We welcome the pope."

"Islam is a religion of forgiveness," he said, adding, however: "We expect apologies from the pope for his insults against Islam."

Abir Qobti, a spokeswoman for the municipality which bedecked the city in the Vatican's yellow and white colours, said Ansar Allah is just a tiny group, unrepresentative of the Muslim population.

"Anyone can criticise the pope's visit or stay away from the welcoming ceremony," she said, stressing though that most Muslims welcome the pontiff's visit.

And the city got a bonus in the form of a government budget to repair roads and build an amphitheatre where the pope will celebrate mass on Thursday.

"Nazareth as a whole benefits from the visit," said Qobti.

The largest Arab city in Israel, Nazareth has a population of 60,000, of whom 30 percent are Christians. Nationwide Christians make up only two percent of Israel's population of seven million.

Even the Christian community has had its reservations over the visit, and several clerics had initially urged the pontiff to boycott Israel over its December-January military offensive in the Gaza Strip that killed more than 1,400 Palestinians.

Abu Nashin insisted Muslims have no intention of causing "any trouble against Nazareth Christians" but said they do plan to demonstrate against the pope's visit following afternoon prayers on Wednesday.

Roman Catholic Patriarchal Vicar for Israel Giacinto-Boulos Marcuzzo said those opposed to the visit only make up a fraction of the Muslim community.

"We have freedom of expression in Israel and many people can say many things," he said.

"We have full confidence in Israeli security," stressed Latin Patriarch Fuad Twal.

AFP / Expatica

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