Muslims led by a radical imam in the town where Jesus was said to be raised are not pleased at the prospect of a visit from the Pope, and have prepared a special insult with which to greet him.
Radical Imam Nazem Abu Salim inspired his followers to string up a banner across the main square of Nazareth with a blatant warning for Pope Benedict XVI: "Those who harm G-d and His Messenger – G-d has cursed them in this world and in the hereafter, and has prepared for them a humiliating punishment."
The words, lifted from the Koran, are translated into English in a small sign next to the banner, which is visible from the Church of the Annunciation, one of the sites the pontiff will visit on May 18.
Abu Salim was clear that the purpose of the banner was to drive the Pope away: "He is not welcome here," he told an Associated Press reporter this week.
The Nazareth municipality has allocated some $5 million to upgrade its facilities in anticipation of the visit, hoping it will spark new tourism revenues, according to Mayor Ramiz Jaraisey, a Christian.
But another city official, Sueil Diab, refused to tell the AP reporter whether the offensive banner and sign would be removed before the Pope arrives.
More than half of the city's population – 70 percent – is Muslim, and has a record of occasionally intimidating the shrinking Christian community.
Relations have been tense between the two populations, particularly ten years ago, when Muslims attempted to build a mosque next to the church. Fist fights eventually put an end to the project, leaving a stone-paved square and a smaller mosque that serves Abu Salim's group.
The radical Northern Islamic Movement has called on all Muslim leaders to boycott interfaith meetings that are to be held throughout the Pope's visit to the region from May 8-15, unless he apologizes for remarks he made during a speech in 2006.
The Pope will meet with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and host an interfaith discuss while in Nazareth, and will celebrate Mass on nearby Mount Precipice. Benedict XVI will also be making stops elsewhere in the Palestinian Authority (PA) territories, as well as in Jerusalem and Jordan.
The Muslim anger at the pontiff is connected to his citation of an obscure medieval text that characterized some of the teachings of the founder of Islam as "evil and inhuman."
Benedict did not endorse the text, and made it clear that it did not reflect his own views, but Muslims insisted he issue a formal apology for using the citation, violently protesting and rampaging through streets in cities around the world.
Muslims attacked churches in the PA as well, firing guns and hurling firebombs at the buildings and worshippers.