As recently as 1995, the geographer Chad Emmett could write a study of Christians and Muslims in Nazareth and worry more about future relations between the two groups than about the continued existence of Christians in the town of Nazareth.[1] Well, the events of December 1997 made the latter issue clear to those who had missed it earlier: that's when Islamists took over the plaza in front of the Basilica of the Annunciation, declared the area a waqf (Muslim endowment), then put up a fence and a tent as a stand-in for the future mosque to be built on the site.

This aggressive act symbolized Islamist confidence and showed intent on their part to marginalize, if not expel, the remaining 30 percent Christian population of Nazareth. As the author, a player in this drama as well as a historian of Islam at the Hebrew University, capably shows in satisfying detail, the government of Binyamin Netanyahu responded weakly, thereby further inflaming the issue, passing the problem to his successors, bringing Pope John Paul II and President George W. Bush into the controversy, and generally creating religious ill-will all around. Momentum remains on the Muslim side: since the eruption of violent clashes, the Christian mayor has "had to hire bodyguards to accompany him everywhere, while the confident Islamist leaders can stroll around the city as carefree as before."

As the book's subtitle suggests, Israeli sees this small episode as part of a larger phenomenon of Christian extrusion from the Holy Land, raising the specter of an ancient history, magnificent church buildings, and an elaborate ecclesiastical hierarchy—but virtually no believers.

[1] Chad F. Emmett, Beyond the Basilica: Christians and Muslims in Nazareth (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), reviewed in MEQ, December 1995, p. 78.