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Globalization

Politics divides Nazareth's Muslims and Christians

Though Nazareth is known for its Christian community, Israel's biggest Arab city is home to a Muslim majority. Tensions between the two religions have been on the rise since a mayoral election turned ugly.

Until last year, Ramez Jaraisi and Ali Salam were close friends. The incumbent Christian mayor and his Muslim deputy ran the city together in a successful partnership; their different religions were largely insignificant.

But when the two men stood against each other in last October's election, everything changed. After a tight race, with just a handful of votes separating them, allegations surfaced of electoral fraud. Israel's attorney general ordered a new election earlier this month, which Ali Salam won.

In the city's souk, or covered market, shopkeepers say the rumors and dirty campaigns around the election affected business. "Trade was a bit slow and the atmosphere was tense," says Mohammed, who runs a women's clothing store.

Down the road, another shopkeeper says most people don't care about religion, but that the election stirred up trouble: "I believe religion is politics - in Nazareth the politicians try to use it this way, they want to get into the Knesset or high places by making conflict between Christians, Muslims and even Jews. They shouldn't do it - it's not allowed - but how can they win their war?"

View of Nazareth

Some in Nazareth think politicians are deliberately seeking to disrupt harmony among faiths

It's perhaps unsurprising that the contest was fought along sectarian lines: when the state of Israel was created in 1948, Nazareth was a small Christian town. The influx of Muslim refugees from surrounding villages changed its demographic makeup, and the high birth rate in the Muslim community means they now make up more than 70 percent of residents.

Adib Hazzan, a member of Nazareth's Greek Orthodox church leadership, says there have always been issues, but they mostly stay under the surface: "When I was young we didn't talk about Muslims or Christians. Now the city has grown larger. There are certain suburbs that are all Muslim. Young people learn in their schools there, they don't meet Christians on every day basis."

"When they want to come to this part of the city they say: we are going to Nazareth, as if they live in a different place. These are conditions that don't create this spirit of fraternity."

Divide and rule?

A recent law passed by the Israeli government that designates Israeli Christians as no longer considered "Arab" is adding further fuel to the fire. The ruling was followed by a proposal to make conscription for Christians obligatory - until now, just like Muslims in Israel, the country's Christians have been exempt from the army service that all Jewish 18-year-olds must do.

Mohamed Zeidan, chairman of the Follow-up Committee for Arabs in Israel, is fighting the bill. He argues it would drive a wedge between Christians and Muslims, when they should be sticking together.

Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem demonstrate against plans to make them undergo military service

Orthodox Jews as well have protested Israel's conscription

Zeidan worries Christian conscription will undermine support for the Palestinians in the West Bank and accuses the Israeli government of trying to divide and rule: "It's trying to use what is happening in the surrounding area, in Syria and Egypt and Iraq, to say there is a war against Christians and make them scared. They say, watch out what the Muslims are doing to you. You should join the army to protect yourselves, but we're telling them that we will protect them."

As the number of Christians enlisting voluntarily increases, Nazareth's Arab leaders are starting to join forces to try and promote unity with Muslims. A multi-faith conference will be held in April with lectures for young people. Hazzan is adamant the government won't succeed in using religion for political gain: "It is the duty of the people whom we call leaders to deal with this issue. Not to brush it aside, to face it. To deal with it courageously," he says.

At the end of the day this seems to be a battle for identity, and both men are hoping the Arab badge will trump those of the individual faiths, Zeidan says: "Everyone has their own religion. One goes to the church, another to the mosque. But the only thing that's important for uniting us is our cause. We are one people. We live together. We have a shared culture."

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