Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip on Monday condemned the ransacking and looting of a church and Christian school in Gaza City and promised to punish the culprits.
Masked gunmen who raided the Latin Church and Rosary Sisters School destroyed crosses, the Holy Book, pictures of Jesus and furniture and equipment. They also stole a number of computers.
The attack was the first of its kind against the tiny Christian community since Hamas took control over the Gaza Strip last week.
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Hamas denied responsibility, saying the attackers were members of a local criminal gang who exploited the chaos on the streets to carry out the attack.
Father Manual Musalam, leader of the Latin community, said he received assurances from Hamas that it would provide protection for all Christians in the Gaza Strip. He added that some of the stolen property was returned to the church and school on Monday.
Father Musalam said former Hamas minister Bassem Naim phoned him to condemn the attack on behalf of the Hamas leadership.
"We don't distinguish between Fatah and Hamas," the Christian leader said. "They are all our brothers and fathers and we are one people."
He said his community had "strong" relations with Hamas, pointing out that Hamas had sided with the Christians when their institutions were attacked in the past. He described the attackers as a bunch of criminals and thieves who were trying to drive a wedge between Muslims and Christians in the Gaza Strip.
Father Musalam dismissed reports that Christians living in Gaza City were afraid because of Hamas's takeover.
"The Christians here are not panicking," he added. "If anyone thinks that we are going to ask for help from the US and Israel, they are dead wrong."
Despite the reassurances, some Christians appealed to the international community to protect them against increased attacks by Muslim extremists. They said they were planning to leave the Gaza Strip as soon as the borders with Israel and Egypt were reopened.
Fatah officials claimed that Hamas militiamen were behind the attack on the church and school.
On Sunday, Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas phoned Father Musalam to express his strong condemnation for the attack.
"President Abbas promised that he would do his utmost to prevent such attacks on Christians here," he said.
Islam Shahwan, spokesman for Hamas's Executive Force in the Gaza Strip, denied responsibility.
He nevertheless admitted that a large group of Hamas militiamen had been near the area during the attack.
"We have instructed all our men to withdraw from the area," he said. "We will punish anyone who targets churches and public institutions."
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