Bishops' Head Asks Israeli Government Revise
                  Policy on Mosque; Says Church in U.S. Stands
                       in Solidarity with Church in Jerusalem
October 21, 1999


     WASHINGTON (October 21, 1999) -- In a strongly worded letter today to Israel's Ambassador to the United
     States, Bishop Joseph A. Fiorenza, President of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/U.S. Catholic
     Conference (NCCB/USCC), urged that Israel revise its current policy permitting the building of a mosque on public land adjacent to the Basilica of the Annunication in Nazareth.

     (Later, in a telephone call from Rome to the General Secretariat of the NCCB/USCC here, Bishop Fiorenza said
     the Israeli government's policy permitting construction of the mosque is in complete contrast to a court decision
     about the ownership of the land. The Bishop also stressed that the Catholic Church in the United States stands in
     solidarity with the Church in Jerusalem and the entire Christian community in Nazareth).

     "We understand how complex this situation is," Bishop Fiorenza said in the letter to Ambassador Zalman Shoval.
     "Nevertheless, it appears to us that a series of actions on the part of two successive Israeli governments...have
     aggravated an already difficult problem by acquiescing to the demands of extremists."

     "We strongly urge the government of Israel to revise its current policy in favor of a more sensitive solution to the
     controversy, perhaps authorizing the construction of a mosque elsewhere or support a center for interreligious
     dialogue on the site," Bishop Fiorenza wrote. "Either solution will be welcomed by the Catholic Bishops of the
     United States as a sign that the Israeli government is committed to fostering good relations among its citizens who
     belong to different religious groups."

Here is the letter of Bishop Fiorenza
 
 

     October 21, 1999
 

     The Honorable
     Zalman Shoval
     Ambassador of Israel
     Embassy of Israel
     3514 International Drive, NW
     Washington, DC 20008

     Dear Mr. Ambassador:

     We have learned with much anxiety of new developments in the controversy over demands for the building of a
     mosque on public land adjacent to the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth. We understand how complex this
     situation is. Nevertheless, it appears to us that a series of actions on the part of two successive Israeli
     governments, or members thereof, have aggravated an already difficult problem by acquiescing to the demands of
     extremists.

     The role of government ministers as they sought support for their parties in the elections last spring, the sometimes
     permissive attitude of police toward mob violence last Easter, the alleged involvement, as reported in the Israeli
     press, of internal security forces in the agitatidn of the crisis, and the proposed compromise whereby a shrine
     would be constructed before the mosque cause us grave concern.

     Because of our accustomed, principled commitment to religious liberty for all and our good relations with Jews
     and Muslims in the United States, we protest the plans for construction of a mosque with some reluctance.
     Nonetheless, we must object strongly to the government's announced "compromise" because the demand for the
     mosque arose from and has been used for political and other purposes that appear aimed at the Christian
     community. We have overcome our usual reticence in such matters out of knowledge of the opposition to the
     project on the part of local and international Muslim and Arab groups.

     We acknowledge steps proposed by the ministerial commission to curb potentially provocative aspects of the
     proposed mosque and to reduce the occasion for Muslim-Christian confrontation in the vicinity of the mosque in
     the years ahead. All the same, the occasion for interreligious confrontation has been greatly increased by the
     ceding of permission to build a mosque in that location. At a time when the Christian presence in Israel is in
     decline, Israeli Christians will see the government's acquiescence as a sign that Christians are not welcome in
     Israel, where in the years since independence, they have been able to live in security.

     We strongly urge the government of Israel to revise its current policy in favor of a more sensitive solution to the
     controversy, perhaps authorizing the construction of a mosque elsewhere or support a center for interreligious
     dialogue on the site. Either solution will be welcomed by the Catholic Bishops of the United States as a sign that
     the Israeli government is committed to fostering good relations among its citizens who belong to different religious
     groups.

     Respectfully yours,

Most Reverend Joseph A. Fiorenza
     Bishop of Galveston-Houston
     President