It took Kathryn Barton a lifetime to make it to Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the traditional site of Jesus's burial and Christendom's holiest spot. But it took her just a minute to dissolve into tears when she found the towering doors were locked.
"I'm so disappointed," said Barton, 69, a Roman Catholic from Phoenix whose eyes welled up as she spoke. "Had we known this was going to happen we would have canceled the trip."
Across the Holy Land, Christian pilgrims and tourists stood stunned and saddened today to find the churches of their faith's most fabled cities--Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity and Nazareth's Basilica of the Annunciation--shut tight. The closure, today and Tuesday, was done to protest Israel's decision permitting construction of a mosque alongside the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, the Israeli town where Christians believe the Archangel Gabriel told Mary she would bear God's son.
Israel's decision has infuriated local Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christian leaders, who are especially protective of Nazareth, the town of Jesus's boyhood. They have no problem with the many other mosques in Nazareth, but they do object to one being built shoulder to shoulder with their own basilica--and on land where they had hoped to build a plaza for millennium pilgrims. So they closed the churches to demonstrate anger at what they called a policy of discrimination.
With more than 3 million tourists expected here next year, the two-day closure, the dispute in Nazareth between Christians and Muslims and Israel's largely unsuccessful attempts at mediation add up to a bitter pre-millennium brew.
Pope John Paul II plans a millennial trip to Israel and the West Bank in late March. The pontiff, who established diplomatic relations with Israel in 1994, will become the first pope to make an official visit to the Holy Land. Yet even as plans for the trip go ahead, Vatican officials have made known their displeasure with Israel's decision on the mosque, and there have been hints the pope could cancel the Nazareth part of his stay.
Israeli officials, caught in the middle and eager for millennium tourists, have issued reassurances to Christians. "We will do everything--everything--to protect the interests of the Christian communities," said Shlomo Ben-Ami, Israel's public security minister. "This is a country of interfaith coexistence. This is the major message."
It was unclear, though, that the message was received by tourists.
Jozef and Riny Witsiers of the Netherlands found their walk in the footsteps of Jesus came to an abrupt halt at the locked gate of the Basilica of the Annunciation. The couple said they trekked by foot 2,500 miles to Israel after setting off on May 1. "I am sorry the church is closed," Jozef Witsiers told reporters. "I hope we can return."
Wiley Blevins, 34, a textbook writer from New York City, a preacher's son and a Baptist, gazed at the massive closed doors of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem: "When you grow up with a particular denomination, you grow up reading and hearing about this place, and you sort of feel like you have to visit it," he said. "I know the Muslims have their pilgrimage to Mecca. I think for Christians it's the same way here."
The conflict in Nazareth began two years ago, and like so many conflicts in the Holy Land arose over conflicting claims to land.
Christians in Nazareth, eyeing millennium visitors, wanted to build a plaza on a half-acre plot just beside the Basilica of the Annunciation. Some of the town's Muslims insisted that the land belonged to them and, as proof, pointed to an ancient Muslim tomb in a corner of the plot. The Muslims pitched a protest tent on the land, blocked attempts to clear it for the plaza and drew up plans for a towering mosque whose minarets would overshadow the basilica next door.
The Muslims were little moved when an Israeli court ruled earlier this year that the land in question belonged not to the Islamic Trust, as they had insisted, but to the Israeli state.
The tensions sparked riots in Nazareth last Easter and left a bitter feud in the town of 60,000 between its politically dominant Muslims and the smaller but more prosperous Christian community. Both sides in the dispute, Arabs in what used to be Palestine, distrusted Israeli officials, who alone had the power to decide.
Seeking a compromise, Israel persuaded the Muslims to accept a much smaller mosque than the one they had proposed originally. The mosque would occupy one-third of the land and the plaza would be built on the remainder. And while the Muslims agreed to delay construction until after the millennium celebrations--and the pope's planned visit--a cornerstone for the mosque is scheduled to be laid Tuesday.
But to the Christians, the Israeli decision was a collapse in the face of Muslim pressure. A statement signed by the most senior Christian clerics in Jerusalem, representing the local Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian churches, expressed "the disapprobation of all the churches at the way that their rights have been violated."
"We trust that we do not need to take any further steps in the near future," it added, "and that the government will rise to the challenge by applying law and order for all."
CAPTION: A worshiper kisses the locked gate of Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
CAPTION: A priest, left, turns away a worshiper from the locked-up Church of the Holy Sepulcher.