As Christian churches in Nazareth stayed shut in protest at Tuesday’s cornerstone-laying ceremony for a new mosque on the site where the angel Gabriel is said to have told Mary she would give birth to Jesus Christ, Le Figaro of Paris led its front page Wednesday with the headline “Vatican-Israel: Open Crisis.” In a front-page editorial the paper criticized the Israeli government’s decision to authorize the construction of the mosque opposite the Christian Basilica of the Annunciation. “To choose to build an Islamic religious edifice on the precise spot where Gabriel appeared to Mary is deliberately to overthrow the sacred order that everyone has respected for centuries,” the paper said. The Times of London said in an editorial that “relations between Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land have suddenly sunk to their lowest level for generations.” The paper said, “Tensions have been stirred by the Vatican’s strong and unhelpful denunciation of the Israeli authorities and by the decision of the Christian clergy to make a stand as a way of recapturing dwindling influence. The result is an unholy and distinctly unseemly row that threatens lasting damage to Christian-Muslim relations worldwide.”
The Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported that the inaugural ceremony, which was attended by no representative of the Israeli government, went ahead smoothly, despite the efforts of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to prevent it. The paper said Arafat’s unexpected alliance with the Christians was part of his strategy to win Christian support in future negotiations with Israel over Jerusalem. “Arafat wants Pope John Paul II to use his March visit to Israel to affirm that the Vatican does not recognize Israeli control over East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians claim as the capital of their future independent state,” Ha’aretz said. In interviews with La Repubblica of Rome and Corriere della Sera of Milan, the head of the Franciscan order in Israel, which, since 1331, has been charged by the Vatican with guarding the Christian sites in the Holy Land, said the land on which the mosque is to be built was previously earmarked as a parking lot for buses carrying Christian pilgrims to Nazareth during the millennium. Father Giovanni Batistelli said Israel’s reason for authorizing the mosque is “to divide the Israeli Arabs, to foment disagreement between Christians and Muslims, thus weakening both of them–perhaps to drive them all out of the Holy Land one day.” But Father Batistelli said the pope should not cancel his planned visit to the region in March. “Canceling his visit to Nazareth would leave the city’s Christians even more alone, when they need all the support they can get,” he said. An opinion poll published in the Jerusalem Post Wednesday showed 32 percent of Israelis in favor of the mosque and 68 percent against.
There was widespread pessimism about the prospects for the forthcoming Seattle conference of the World Trade Organization. Several European papers fronted the failure of the WTO’s 135 member states to agree on a joint declaration to submit to the conference. The Financial Times fronted Clinton’s failure to persuade other world leaders to join him in Seattle. The FT also said that “big divergences over agriculture and implementation of existing agreements finally scuppered all chances of accord on a draft text, which would only have laid out a set of choices for ministers to make on the scope and objectives of the negotiations.” It also quoted European Union Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy saying that the Seattle meeting might fail to launch a new trade round. Le Monde of Paris led its front page Wednesday with France’s education minister denouncing the United States for wanting to include education in the WTO talks. The minister, Claude Allègre, told the paper that this represented America seeking hegemony and that “uniform teaching would lead to a uniform world.”
The South China Morning Post noted that Chinese President Jiang Zemin has uttered hardly a word in public about the recent U.S.-China trade agreement. “Mr Jiang, normally given to long-winded speeches, has maintained an eerie reticence,” according to a comment piece Wednesday. It attributed this to the president’s fears that WTO membership could precipitate an economic and political crisis in China. In an editorial, the SCMP said that the front-runners in the U.S. presidential race are showing a “reasonable perspective” on China rather than going for quick political gains by demonizing the country in their quest for votes. “Perhaps a stable realism will emerge once the elections are over, permitting relations which lack the damaging mood swings of recent years,” it concluded.
Italian newspapers continued to debate the behavior of the Oscar-winning actor-director of Life Is Beautiful, Roberto Benigni, who smothered President Clinton with kisses during the Florence summit last weekend. The Christian-Democrat Avvenire compared him to a woodpecker and said he should be appointed state jester. Il Manifesto, a Communist daily, said it expected the pope to be the next victim of “the little devil’s” mouth-to-mouth kissing.
The official China Daily reported from Sri Lanka Wednesday a ruling by that country’s superior court that elephants have a right to be happy. The case was brought by an animal lover after the Sri Lanka national zoo sold a bull elephant that had killed two of its trainers to a gem dealer for $113,000. The court ordered that before the sale of an elephant is completed, the would-be owner must convince a state-appointed official that the elephant will be given suitable shelter, enough food, proper health care, and plenty of love. Keeping elephants as pets is considered a status symbol in Sri Lanka, the China Daily said.