Tensions rise over church attack in Nazareth
Updated Sat. Mar. 4 2006 2:14 PM ET
NAZARETH, Israel — A Roman Catholic bishop called for better protection of Christian sites Saturday after an Israeli couple set off a series of explosions in a church in Nazareth.
Israeli Arabs, meanwhile, filled the streets of the biblical city to protest Friday's attack on the Basilica of the Annunciation, which apparently was driven by personal distress and not extremism but still heightened religious and political tensions in northern Israel.
The couple and their 20-year-old daughter used a baby stroller to smuggle firecrackers and small gas canisters into the church on Friday evening.
They threw the explosives from the balcony and were beaten by worshippers before police arrived. After a three-hour standoff between police and thousands of protesters, the suspects were led away through a back exit, disguised as police officers. Club-wielding police fired stun grenades to keep back the mob.
The church suffered only minor damage, but the attack spurred widespread stone-throwing riots in which two dozen people, including 13 police officers, were hurt.
Hundreds of Israeli Arabs — Christian and Muslim — marched through Nazareth, holding up Palestinian flags and banners with slogans such as "Israel breeds hate" and "they accuse us of terrorism but they do terrorism."
The protesters sang church songs as they made their way from the municipality to the basilica. The streets were empty of police forces, who decided to stay out of town to avoid tensions.
Police said the man, Haim Eliyahu Habibi, had financial problems, and apparently is not a Jewish extremist. Habibi, his Christian wife, Violet, and their daughter were treated at a hospital before being taken into custody.
Habibi's daughter told investigators her parents intended to create a provocation to draw attention to their economic troubles and protest that two of their children had been taken from them by the Israeli authorities, Yaakov Sigdon, a police commander in northern Israel, told Israel Radio.
Several years ago, the family had sought political asylum in a West Bank town under Palestinian control for similar reasons.
But many Arabs dismissed the Israeli explanation, saying the government could have done more to prevent the attack and protect the Christian minority.
"We don't understand why and how this man came here, given his personality. Who sent him here?" said Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah, the top Roman Catholic official in the Holy Land. "It is unclear, but it gives fuel to our anxieties about the future."
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni contacted the Vatican late Friday, offering assurances that Israel is committed to protecting Christian holy places, officials said. Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert also discussed the situation with Nazareth's mayor, Olmert's office said.
Archbishop Elias Shakur, the top Roman Catholic official in Nazareth, issued a call for unity among Israel's citizens and dismissed the attackers as lone extremists. While praising the Israeli response, he said "it is not enough."
"It's a big tragedy for all of us in Israel, for Christians, for having their most holy places spoiled and used in a barbaric way," he said.
At the basilica, a small group of worshippers gathered to pray. Black stains on the walls caused by the explosion were removed.
But tensions remained high in northern Israel, where much of the country's Arab population is located. Police postponed at least seven soccer matches Saturday, fearing riots could break out.
In the Gaza Strip, Ismail Haniyeh, the designated Palestinian prime minister from the Islamic militant Hamas group, said the attack was the result "of a hate culture which Israel is feeding its public against the Palestinians, and their Christian and Islamic holy places and believers."
The Basilica of the Annunciation is built on the site where Christians believe the Angel Gabriel appeared before the Virgin Mary and foretold the birth of Jesus.
Nazareth, the boyhood town of Jesus, is inhabited by about 74,000 Arab Israelis, about two-thirds Muslim and the remainder Christian. Religious tensions have boiled over in the past, with the two sides in a dispute over attempts to build a mosque next to the church.
The attack also underscored the tense relations between Israel's Jewish majority and its Arab minority. Israeli Arabs, who make up about 20 percent of the population, complain of discrimination.
Israel's roughly 1 million Arabs hold Israeli citizenship, in contrast to Palestinian residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip who live under the Palestinian Authority.
Despite tensions between Jews and Arabs, violence is rare