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In an operation that began in the pre-dawn hours Tuesday in the northern town of Nazareth, bulldozers operating on orders from the Interior Ministry demolished the foundations of the unauthorized Shehab a-Din mosque, which Muslims sought to erect next to the town's Church of the Annunciation.

Christians believe that the church is built on the site where the Angel Gabriel foretold the birth of Jesus Christ.

Although protest at the site was minor, angry Muslim leaders condemned the move, tying it to reports that Israel was quietly allowing Jews to enter the Temple Mount after a long suspension of such visits.

MK Abdelmalik Dahamshe of the United Arab List accused the Bush administration and the Sharon government of having banded together for a "war on Islam."

"The new crusade of the Bush-Sharon axis of evil in the world is against Islam. It's no wonder that on same day, they demolish the foundations of the mosque in Nazereth, and announce visits on the Noble Sanctuary [Temple Mount]."

In Rome, the Vatican welcomed the development. The Reverend Giovanni Battistelli, the Franciscan Order's top representative in the Holy Land, called the decision to remove the mosque "fair and just."

Battistelli told Vatican Radio, "We had been asking for it since the beginning."

Some 500 police and were deployed in and around the city, where the effort to build the mosque has prompted friction between Israeli Arab Christians and Muslims since late 1997, when a group of Muslims put up a tent at the site and declared it a mosque.

The demolition, completed by midday, follows a court order at the conclusion of a protracted legal battle. Immediately after the demolition work has ended, the Housing Ministry plans to begin building a large central municipal square at the site.

A number of demonstrators were arrested or detained near the foundations Tuesday, including the city's deputy mayor, Salman Abu Ahmed, arrested for blocking a road near the site. On the whole, however, protests were much milder than security forces had feared.

Tempers later cooled, and about 200 Muslim worshippers gathered peacefully for midday prayers in a nearby road, which police had closed to traffic.

The large church is a focus of Christian pilgrimage from abroad. Israel granted the national Islamic Trust (Waqf) permission in 1999 to build a mosque some 500 meters from the church. The site houses the tomb of Shehab e-Din, nephew of the Muslim leader Saladin who ousted the Crusaders from the Holy Land eight centuries ago.

Christian tradition holds that the basilica marks the site where the angel Gabriel told the Virgin Mary she would bear the son of God.

The prospect of a mosque rising near the basilica alarmed the minority Christian population of Nazareth, disturbing a delicate religious balance in Israel's leading Arab city, where riots between the two communities erupted in April 1999.

The Vatican and U.S. churches voiced concern, leading to an Israeli ministerial review of the project and a cabinet decision in March 2002 to end construction of the mosque on grounds the Waqf failed to obtain proper building permits. The decision has since been upheld by Israeli courts.

Earlier this month, the Nazareth District Court rejected an appeal by the Religious Trust and ordered that the demolition go ahead.

"The demolition is simply a provocation, aimed at riding roughshod over the Muslim population of Nazareth," Abu Ahmed said before his arrest.

"I call on everyone to gather here and and make decisions. It is a disgrace for the government of Israel to destroy a mosque that lacks authorization, at the same time that hundreds, even thousands of houses standing in and around the city lack permits."

Israel quietly allows Jews to enter Temple MountThe Nazaretz tension follows reports that Israeli police in recent days have begun to allow non-Muslim members of the public to enter the Temple Mount grounds in the Old City of Jerusalem, under police escort, despite the fact that the Waqf had not agreed to the move.

In the Knesset plenum about two weeks ago, Interior Security Minister Tzachi Hanegbi said that Jews would soon be allowed on the Temple Mount, "even if no agreement is reached with the Waqf."

After consulting with Shin Bet Security Service chief Avi Dichter and Jerusalem District Police commander, Major General Mickey Levy on the subject, Hanegbi recommended to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that the Mount be opened to non-Muslim visitors. Sharon, who visited the Temple Mount in the fall of 2000, an event some cite as the catalyst for the outbreak of the intifada, and subsequently closed the site to Jews, said that he prefers that the renewal of visits by Jews to the site be done with the consent of the Waqf.

Last week, Labor MK Colette Avital revealed that Israeli police did not wait for the prime minister and the Waqf to reach an agreement. Police officers stationed at the Western Wall began to escort groups of tourists on visits to the grounds of the mosques at the site. Commander of the police station at the Western Wall, Officer Yossi Ben Haim, even approached tourists in the Old City and lobbied them to join the organized visit to the sensitive site.