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Palestinian churches attacked after Pope remarks

September 16, 2006

Palestinian churches attacked after Pope remarks

By Atef Sa'ad

NABLUS, West Bank (Reuters) - Palestinian gunmen attacked churches in the West Bank and Gaza Strip on Saturday after a day of protests against comments Pope Benedict made about Islam. 

No one was hurt in a string of fire bombings and shootings that caused no major damage. 

Palestinian Greek Orthodox priest George Awad views black scorch marks on the walls of his church after it was hit by firebombs in the West Bank city of Nablus September 16, 2006. Unknown assailants threw fire bombs at two churches in Nablus, following a day of protests against comments Pope Benedict made about Islam. (REUTERS/Abed Omar Qusini)
Five churches came under attack in the West Bank city of Nablus, where militant groups have long been the dominating force. 

Masked men, who local security officials said were undoubtedly Palestinian militants, hurled fire bombs at the Anglican and Greek Orthodox churches. 

There was no damage at the Anglican church and a wall was scorched at the Greek Orthodox church. 

In a second wave of attacks several hours later, Palestinian assailants, this time unmasked, poured petrol outside the gates of the Roman Catholic, Greek Catholic and Protestant churches, starting fires that were swiftly extinguished, witnesses said. 

No one claimed responsibility for the Nablus incidents and police said they were searching for the assailants. 

"We denounce these attacks," Nablus Mayor Adli Yaeesh said. "We do not accept the Pope's remarks, but this is not the way to protest against them. Christians are our brothers." 

In the Gaza Strip, gunmen in a car pulled up outside the Greek Orthodox church compound and fired bullets over its roof. There were no immediate reports of damage. 

In a telephone call, a man who said he represented "The Sword of Islam", an unknown group, claimed responsibility. 

"We have just fired at one church in Gaza City. We warn that if the Pope does not go on television and apologise for the offensive comments regarding Islam and the Prophet, we will bomb the churches of Gaza," the caller said. 

In a speech in Germany on Tuesday, the Pope appeared to endorse a Christian view, contested by most Muslims, that the early Muslims spread their religion by violence. It could not be confirmed that the church attacks were connected to his remarks. 

APOLOGY 

The Vatican said on Saturday the Pope was sorry that Muslims were offended by his speech. 

Thousands of Palestinians marched in Gaza on Friday to protest at his remarks. A youth centre run by the Greek Orthodox church in Gaza was slightly damaged by an explosion on Friday. 

Salem Salama, the head of Muslim clerics in the Palestinian territories, urged Palestinians to protect and respect Christians and also called on Muslim countries not to allow the Pope to visit in order to ensure his safety. 

"We urge our nations and our Muslim and Arab countries not to receive the Pope so that he does not make any comments that may ignite fire and in order to avoid any assault on him that may ignite a religious war," Salama said in Gaza. 

Senior officials from the Palestinian government, which has been led by the Islamic Hamas group after it won a January parliamentary election, and other local leaders gathered at the scene of the Nablus attacks and offered words of condolence. 

Most of the some 3.8 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip identify themselves as Muslim, while up to 2 percent are Christian. Attacks between members of the communities are rare. 

"We are brothers and sisters during good and bad times in Palestine and tolerance is the common oxygen for people here -- Christians and Muslims," said George Awad, head of the Greek Orthodox church in Nablus. 

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