Churches attacked in Gaza, W. Bank

Swords of Islamic Right group: "What the Pope said is unforgivable."

palestinian ap 298.88 (photo credit: )
palestinian ap 298.88
(photo credit: )
A hitherto unknown group calling itself the Swords of Islamic Right on Saturday threatened to blow up all churches and Christian institutions in the Gaza Strip to protest remarks made by Pope Benedict XVI about Islam and the Prophet Muhammad. The group, which claimed responsibility for a shooting attack on the facade of a Greek Orthodox church in the Zeitoun neighborhood in Gaza City on Saturday, said it would not accept an apology from the pope. On Saturday, four other churches in Nablus were also attacked by Palestinians wielding guns, firebombs and lighter fluid. No injuries were reported in any of the attacks, which left church doors charred and outer walls pocked by bullet holes and scorched by firebombs. A policeman at the Gaza church said he saw a car escape with armed men inside. Bombs were set off at the same church on Friday, causing minor damage. "The people who did this are uneducated and ignorant," said the Gaza church's prelate, the Rev. Artinious Alexious. On Tuesday in Germany, Benedict quoted verbatim from criticism of the Prophet Muhammad by 14th century Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaeologus: "Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached." The pope did not explicitly agree with or repudiate the text. The attacks on four of Nablus's 10 churches, and on the Greek Orthodox church in Gaza City sparked concern that violence would widen. "The atmosphere is charged already, and the wise should not accept such acts," Father Yousef Saada, a Greek Catholic priest in Nablus, said Saturday. Firebombings left black scorch marks on the walls and windows of Nablus's Anglican and Greek Orthodox churches. At least five firebombs hit the Anglican church, whose door was later set ablaze in a separate attack. Smoke billowed from the church as firefighters put out the flames. In a phone call to The Associated Press, a group calling itself the Lions of Monotheism claimed responsibility. The caller said the attacks were carried out to protest the pope's remarks about Islam. Later Saturday, four masked gunmen doused the main doors of Nablus's Roman and Greek Catholic churches with lighter fluid, then set them afire. They also opened fire on the buildings, striking both. Ayman Daraghmeh, a legislator from the ruling Hamas group, denounced the attacks. Said Siam, the Palestinian Authority interior minister, ordered extra protection for churches in the West Bank and Gaza. "What the pope said is unforgivable," the Swords of Islamic Right said in a statement. "We will continue to target churches." George Awad, a cleric at the Greek Orthodox church in Nablus, said he and Catholic leaders had apologized for the pope's remarks, but urged restraint. "There is no reason to burn our churches," he said. Christians make up less than 10 percent of the population in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Most of them are located in Bethlehem and its environs. According to estimates, less than 2,000 Christians live in the Gaza Strip, a stronghold for radical Islamic groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad. PA Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and other authority leaders condemned the pope's statement and called on him to apologize to the Muslim world. Preachers in several mosques used Friday prayers to launch scathing attacks on the pope and to call on all Arab and Islamic countries to boycott him until he apologizes. On Friday night, about 2,000 Palestinians took to the streets of Gaza City, chanting slogans against the pope and accusing him of leading a new Crusade against the Muslim world. Bishop Riah Abo El-Assal, the top Anglican clergyman in the Holy Land, said Saturday he expected his Muslim colleagues would swiftly denounce the attacks on the churches. Abo El-Assal brushed aside the attacks as "childish acts" and said he was not increasing security at the Anglican churches in the area. In Nablus, merchant Khaled Ramadan, 31, wearing traditional Islamic garb, said the pope's comments were unforgivable, but that Palestinians must not fight amongst themselves. "We are one people and violent reactions like these should not happen here," he said. In the West Bank town of Taiba, neither the pope's remarks nor the Islamic Hamas government ruffled the second annual Octoberfest beer festival, held early this year so as not to fall during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins next week. "No one from Hamas says anything," despite the Islamic prohibition against liquor, said Omar Dhadl, a 36-year-old Christian, a fast food vendor in the predominantly Christian village, which is home to the Taiba brewery. Rasha Khoury, a 26-year-old resident of the village, speculated that was because Hamas, which plans to soon share power with the secular Fatah Party, doesn't "have a lot of authority." Quaffing his beer, Essi Thalji, a 51-year-old construction worker from Taiba, shrugged off the uproar over the pope's comments. "I don't understand why they got so upset because he quoted books from 400 years ago," Thalji said.